September 16, 2007

Taking The Good & The Badds

After some ups and downs, Aaron Baddeley shows a special flair

There was something about the smile. When Aaron Baddeley took a two-stroke lead into the final round of this year's U.S. Open at Oakmont, he was paired with Tiger Woods and seemingly ready for his close-up. But Baddeley opened with a nightmarish triple-bogey 7, hitting four shaky shots before three-putting from 10 feet. After finally picking his ball out of the hole, the 26-year-old Aussie raised up and flashed a sheepish grin.

It was reminiscent of Woods' smile after he made a triple bogey on the third hole at Pebble Beach while leading during the third round of the 2000 U.S. Open. Yes, Woods went on to win by 15, and Baddeley shot 80 at Oakmont to tie for 13th. But both reactions projected the humility, humor and strength needed to survive the game's most cruel moments.

It is from such small things that we try to divine answers to one of the most interesting questions in golf: Who among today's young players will emerge to challenge or succeed Woods?

According to the increasingly impatient consensus, it's someone who hasn't yet appeared on the scene, meaning that the usual litany of best young players -- Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, Trevor Immelman, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Sean O'Hair -- are deemed to not quite have it.

It's a hasty verdict, based on spur-of-the-moment judgments of intangibles like desire, competitive temperament and poise under pressure. Such things should not be concluded about a top player until he's into his 30s.

But tangibly, it's true that the aforementioned group lacks greatness on and around the green. And there is no way to truly challenge Woods or play near his level without such skills. Tiger's superiority with short shots is the physical part of the game where he is furthest ahead of his peers. In a comparison with Nicklaus, it's where Woods holds his most important edge. And it's mostly because of a superb short game that Phil Mickelson is considered the closest rival to Woods.

Short-game guru Stan Utley offers this summary:

"Guys from my era and before tended to really know how to use our hands and arms to manipulate the clubface. Today's young guys are so focused on using their bodies to produce a really powerful hit, I don't even know if they know where their hands are when they hit it. It really shows up in the short game. If I go watch an 18-year-old play, that's the part he's likely missing, and the same with most 25-year-olds on tour.

"As far as putting, guys used to grow up hanging around the putting green putting for quarters. Not many do anymore," Utley says. "Aaron Baddeley is different. He has a lot of finesse and a lot of feel."

As for Baddeley's one-look-and-go putting routine that makes holing out seem easy, Utley adds, "The young man has an almost ideal stroke."

It's what makes Baddeley the game's most intriguing young player. Despite his demise at Oakmont, Baddeley had by far his best finish in a major -- bettering a T-52 at this year's Masters. In the process, he showed he's capable of hitting fairways and greens under the most demanding conditions, and that when he does, his hands possess an extra scoring gear.

Not that Baddeley has done it enough to completely nullify cries of fluke. It's clear he doesn't have the body of work to compare with the best of his young peers, although winning his second consecutive Australian Open in 2000 -- at age 19 -- put him ahead of the others. But five years of struggles followed, leaving Baddeley more known for being overhyped and two snarky monikers: "Dresses" (Baddeley) -- based on his fashion-forward golf clothing -- and more wounding, "Hits It" (Baddeley), referring to his often erratic tee-to-green game.

Still, Baddeley's first PGA Tour victory, at Hilton Head in 2006, and his 64-64 rush to victory at Scottsdale in February lent some credence to his performance at Oakmont.

"He reminds me of Seve with the wedges, and Watson in his prime with the putter," says veteran caddie Pete Bender, who prior to picking up Baddeley's bag in late 2004 could list Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd as former employers. "When he's finding the fairway, he can be awesome."

Bender's Watson allusion is about style as well as substance. Baddeley tends to charge putts, leaving himself a lot of four-foot comebackers that he bangs in with dispatch. Since joining the PGA Tour in 2003, he has twice led in average putts per round, and only once has he been out of the top 20 in putting average.

"From 10 feet and in, Aaron is the equal of Tiger, and perhaps even better," says Norman, an Australian whose putting and short game were exceptional during his long reign as No. 1. "That's a tremendous weapon because it takes so much pressure off the rest of your game."

But Baddeley's problem has been the pressure he reapplies by being one of the worst drivers on the PGA Tour. Even as he has gotten into the 20s on the World Ranking and risen to a career-best 95th in total driving, the rest of his ball-striking statistics remain on the bottom tier. A product of Australia's sandbelt courses, where the lack of rough takes the premium off hitting tee shots down the sprinkler line, Baddeley concedes, "Even when I won tournaments, I was never a very straight driver -- always a little crooked."

Plagued by sustained periods of wildness, Baddeley almost quit competitive golf entirely as an amateur in September 2000, only two months before he would win that second Australian Open. A year later, after moving to America, he did leave his first teacher, Dale Lynch of the renowned Victorian Institute of Sport in Melbourne, for David Leadbetter. But rather than thriving, Baddeley struggled on the Nationwide Tour, and at one point in 2002 he missed six cuts. He eventually earned his card to the big tour but nearly lost it when he finished 123rd on the money list in 2004.

"In my opinion," says Steven Bann, founder of the institute, "Aaron made a huge mistake by not continuing with Dale, and I think that's supported by Geoff Ogilvy, who wasn't at the same level as Aaron back then, going on to be a top-10 player in the world. Aaron's best strength has always been faith and confidence that he could do it. His short game is total trust, recalling all that success and all that fun he had when he was a kid. He lost that for a time with his full swing. Dale always knew his clubface was slightly closed in the delivery position, but Aaron was still hitting good shots and winning tournaments. And then somebody comes along and says, 'Well, the clubface is shut, and you're going to hook it.' Well, he had never hooked the ball in his life. So he started holding it off too much, and the ball went right. He lost touch with the target."

Baddeley, who extols Lynch and Leadbetter as vital influences, confirms as much. "I had a big miss right -- like off the planet," he says. "I was always worried that shot would pop up."

After leaving Leadbetter in 2004, Baddeley waited until late 2005 to commit to new teachers Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer, who have worked to strip down his swing to a tight turn with almost no head movement, the poster boy for Stack & Tilt (Golf Digest, June 2007). The plan is to give Baddeley a repeatable method to hit more fairways and greens, from where he can capitalize on his scoring skills.

"Aaron is far from a finished product," says Plummer, "but he has spells where he can do some unbelievable things, things that most people can't. I think that's his unique gift. We just want to give him more opportunities to use it."

But though Baddeley has risen on money lists, his on-course statistics haven't improved, and fellow Aussie Ian Baker-Finch thinks the pattern will be hard to break.

"I thought a few years ago that Aaron would be as good as anyone out there and eventually challenge Tiger," Baker-Finch says. "But when he started driving it sideways for those few years, it cost him dearly. It's hard to believe in yourself and think of yourself as a champion when you hit so many bad shots over a long stretch. There's scar tissue, and it's never going to be easy to overcome."

Perhaps, but in truth it was putting, not his ball striking, that betrayed Baddeley in the final round of the U.S. Open.

"Oakmont was a huge step," he says. "For me to be leading by two going into the last day, three years ago there was never a chance. Never. Wouldn't have mattered if I had putted the best I ever putted in my entire life, I never would have hit it straight enough. Andy and Mike have gotten me organized to where when I miss a shot now, I know why -- and how to fix it. I consider my driver one of my strengths. So I feel like my game is ready for majors."

It's not so much what Baddeley says, it's how he says it. His 6-feet-1, 182-pound frame puts out a Down Under surfer demeanor. When Baddeley does speak, it's with a peaceful conviction.

"Character has been built in me," he says. "I can handle what happened to me at Oakmont in a way I wouldn't have been able to four or five years ago. I was much weaker then, but the hard times taught me to stand strong in tough situations. As the Bible says, be of good courage; do not give up. That's what a champion does."

And maybe that's what was so compelling about that smile.