Barnes had to sweat it out before learning his fate for 2009

Five years later, the infectious smile is back.

Ricky Barnes captured the golf world with that smile more than five years ago when the swashbuckling, tight shirt-wearing U.S. Amateur champion made an impressive run in the 2003 Masters.

In the five-plus years since, that wide, toothy grin has been weathered as the can't-miss prospect continually missed. He missed putts and missed cuts and it all nearly crashed down on him again Sunday before something finally went right for Barnes.

He tied for 37th at the Nationwide Tour championship, but 37th never felt so good. It meant Barnes earned $5,000, which was just enough to finish No. 25 on the final season money list and earn the last of the PGA Tour cards given to the top 25 finishers on the Nationwide Tour.

"I almost couldn't believe it," Barnes said. "I think it took about three or four hours before it finally sunk in. I've been waiting so long for this and it finally happened."

Barnes had waited more than five years for that moment, a roller-coaster journey during which he tried qualifying for the tour in every which way possible, but the most difficult part of that 67-month voyage came during the last three hours when he had to wait to find out his fate.

He started the tour championship at No. 22 on the season money list, but when he finished his final round Sunday, he was projected to finish 26th or 27th on the money list. There were still 38 players on the course, however, and a multitude of scenarios along with them.

"I signed my card and got out of the shower and I was ready to go to the airport," Barnes said. "But some of my friends and family said 'You might want to stick around, it looks like it might get interesting.'"

So stick around he did. Barnes said his friends and family members all had cell phones out checking scores, crunching numbers and calculating the possibilities. Every once in a while, someone would tell him he was in, then someone would say he was out based on what the remaining players were shooting.

The hardest part?

"The Golf Channel was televising the event, but it was on a half-hour delay in the clubhouse," Barnes said. "So I couldn't watch it live. I had to rely on everyone with their cell phones."

Still, it was difficult because in order for Barnes to move up, someone had to move down.

"You don't want to be that guy who roots against people," Barnes said. "So I didn't really know what to do."

It's impossible to pinpoint exactly what combination of events took place to put Barnes back in the top 25. Nearly every birdie and bogey changed the positions of every player, thus altering the projected final money count.

The only statistic that mattered was that Barnes finished $3,582 ahead of David Branshaw, who finished 26th. It was the polar opposite of what happened to Barnes in 2006, when he finished one spot shy of earning his PGA Tour card.

"In 2006 I was the odd guy out," Barnes said. "I had this feeling of 'Not again,' but fortunately it worked out. It feels a lot better being this guy than it did being that guy."

That it has taken Barnes this long to become "this guy" might be the biggest surprise of all. He was a four-time All-American at Arizona and won the 2002 U.S. Amateur, defeating 2008 Ryder Cup hero Hunter Mahan in the finals at Oakland Hills.

That victory got him into the 2003 Masters where, paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds, he shot 69-73 and was tied for third after 36 holes before he eventually finished tied for 21st. Later that year, he made the cut at the U.S. Open and then turned professional with high expectations.

Barnes was a big enough draw to get six sponsor exemptions, but he missed the cut in all of them. The next year, again relying mostly on sponsor exemptions, he missed five of seven cuts on the PGA Tour. In 2005, he played the Nationwide Tour full time, but had only two top-10 finishes and finished No. 82 on the season money list.

"In college and amateur golf, you can still beat half of the field even if you aren't playing that well," said Bryce Molder, who's tie for third Sunday moved him into the top 25, earning him his 2009 PGA Tour card. "You go up against pros and for a lot of people, you taste failure for the first time and you start doubting yourself."

For Barnes, the doubt peaked in 2007, which he called the worst season of his career. He finished 108th on the Nationwide Tour with 1.803 putts per green in regulation and was 67th in greens in regulation, hitting only 68.45 percent.

This year, after a switch to swing instructor Dean Reinmuth, he improved his ball striking and finished 10th in greens in regulation, improving to 72.36 percent, though his putting remained the same at 1.803.

"He's such an athletic talent and a great ball striker, but he was really getting frustrated," Reinmuth said. "With his frustration growing, he was pressing and that only compounds things."

Barnes acknowledged that he was beginning to doubt himself, but five top-10 finishes in his first 10 events of 2008 helped ease his psyche.

"I saw some early-season results and golf became fun again," he said. "It's a lot easier to play when it's fun."

And now that he's having fun, he says he hopes to start living up to some of the lofty expectations that have been floating about for the past five years.

"I wanted everything so quick and it was tough to not have success right away at the professional level," Barnes said. "Nobody has higher expectations of me than me. I've just had to learn to be patient and realize that it's a long road, but if you stay on it, there is justice."

Expectations were high enough from the outset that he was offered several endorsement deals, one of which has made him a character in the EA Sports video game "Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf." The trouble is that before now, even though he has played in 24 PGA Tour events as a qualifier or on a sponsor exemption, he's never had full-time membership on the PGA Tour.

"I'm more comfortable now knowing that I've earned it," Barnes said with a laugh.

And, presumably, a smile.

Peter Yoon is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.