PEBBLE BEACH — Chris Baker, a 33-year-old rookie, has been to hell and back to finally reach the pinnacle of his sport, the PGA Tour. Well, maybe not hell, though Kazakhstan wasn’t a particularly idyllic stop on his journey.
Moscow, on the other hand, wasn’t terrible. “I enjoyed it there. It was actually beautiful,” he said, recalling the visit to Russia when he was playing the European Challenge Tour—the same tour that produced current World No. 1 Brooks Koepka.
He almost met his Waterloo, in, well, Waterloo. The one in Iowa.
That was in 2013. Now that was hell. "Rock bottom," he admitted. Left there nearly flat broke and a broken golfer.
“I was done,” he told our John Strege in September after earning his PGA Tour card via the Korn Ferry Finals. “I was over it. I was getting beat up. I was tired of losing money.” Then the very next week, while contemplating civilian life and a future in golf relegated to $5 Nassaus on the weekend, he won the Greater Cedar Rapids Open on the Dakotas Tour and $20,000.
This week, in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, first place is worth $1.4 million. And the Indiana native is in contention to collect it. “Yeah,” he said with a big grin, “definitely a step up, right?”
Despite a bogey on his final hole, the par-4 ninth at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Baker carded an eight-under 64, tying his career low on the PGA Tour, though his career to this point in the big leagues encompasses all of 12 events. He sits tied for fourth at 10-under 133, four behind Canada’s Nick Taylor.
It was a memorable day for the former Iowa State Honorable Mention All-American, who despite walking around in awe of his surroundings at the iconic seaside layout—truly heaven for any golfer—managed to play almost a mistake-free round.
Which, by the way, was his first competitively. He did get in a practice round on Wednesday, when he played two balls and made an eagle and a birdie at the par-5 sixth. Then on Friday he eagled it again, sinking a 23-foot putt that was nearly identical to the one he converted in practice.
That stroke briefly leapfrogged him into the lead, which didn’t intimidate him in the least.
Two weeks ago, in the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, he found himself playing alongside about 5,000 people. And Tiger Woods.
“Yeah, that was a dream day,” said Baker, who struggled to a 74 on the South Course, but learned quite a bit, as one should, watching up close a guy with 82 tour wins. “Just the massive crowds … everything that was happening was, it was a great learning experience, didn't play my best golf that day, but at the same time like invaluable experience going forward to play with Tiger Woods, to see his crowds, Torrey Pines South Course, that's his stomping grounds.”
He ended up T-73, one of just three cuts he’s made in 10 starts this season, so he has a bit of learning yet to do. But perhaps he’s catching on. Not that he’ll win this week, but everyone has their own learning curve. "Yeah, it's definitely a step up," he repeated, "but at the same time we're still playing golf, learning a lot, just how to play with the best in the game."
Baker never won on the Korn Ferry Tour, but in 2010 he captured the Moroccan Golf Classic, which gave him status on the Challenge Tour. Funny, but that 2013 victory in Cedar Rapids actually brought him his biggest winner’s check. “I think with today’s exchange rate, that is bigger than from Morocco,” he said with a laugh.
A casual exchange actually got him pointed in the right direction. Just prior to missing the cut in that event in Waterloo nearly seven years ago, he was practicing at Ironhorse Golf Club in Leawood, Kan., and observed a man giving a chipping lesson. He was impressed. It turned out to be Clay Devers, a former tour pro, who agreed to help him with his putting. Always a decent ball striker, Baker felt rejuvenated.
“I didn’t make the cut [at Waterloo], but I made three 15-footers and was ecstatic,” Baker said, laughing. He made everything the next week at Cedar Rapids. On Friday, he converted just over 123 feet of putts, ranking third in strokes gained-putting in the field.
Though having lived a bit of a nomadic existence, he’s never strayed in his mind from his belief that he could get to this level. “Sure, you have some doubts, but I always felt I was on my way to something bigger,” he said. "Obviously, there's times where it's tough, but there's also times like today where you play Pebble Beach and you shoot 64. So that's pretty hard to not just smile about and be really happy."
Having played all over the world and seen some amazing places—Kazakhstan!—Baker has heretofore struggled to answer a question he often gets asked: What is his favorite golf course?
Now the answer is obvious. “After today,” he said with a shrug, grinning, “it’s Pebble Beach.”