June 10, 2008

Moment in the Sun

He won the British Open and was one of the best players in the world. Then he suffered the most devastating slump in the game's history.David Duval? No, Ian Baker-Finch. Well, guess what? Finchy's doing just fine

Ian at home with Laura, Hayley and Jennie in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Ian at home with Laura, Hayley and Jennie in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Every golfer has experienced frustration and embarrassment on some scale, but Ian Baker-Finch was a major-championship winner and one of the best players in the world before he descended into a slump of epic proportions.

How bad was it? Think of David Duval's recent woes and you have just a hint of how Baker-Finch suffered shortly after winning the 1991 British Open. He missed 32 cuts in a row on the PGA Tour from 1994-'97, to the point that he joked about being named Australia's Father of the Year for always being home with his family on weekends.

__Baker-Finch listened to thousands of suggestions from friends and strangers, but it only led to a classic case of paralysis by analysis. The nadir was shooting a 92 in the 1997 British Open at Troon. At that point Baker-Finch, who left home at 15 to become an assistant club pro, made the decision to walk away from competition--but not the game. Today, Baker-Finch, 44, remains a fixture on ABC-TV's golf telecasts. He sat down with Golf Digest for four long conversations, showing remarkable candor about his life on tour. (And speaking of revealing, he tells the story of doffing his pants to play a shot from a hazard.) __

Baker-Finch remains upbeat, and he's even entertaining a notion of putting his game back on display. If you're the kind of player who stripes it on the practice range but loses it on the golf course, you'll empathize with a guy who tried to survive on tour battling the same demons.

Golf Digest: Does it bother you that no matter how good of a TV analyst you become you might always be remembered as a British Open champion who completely lost his game?

Ian Baker-Finch: No, I'm comfortable with that. I'm sure there are a number of people who know me as that guy, but I think more people know me now as "the Aussie guy on TV." I know me, and I'm comfortable with where I'm headed.

We hear you're still competitive playing against pros in non-tournament settings. Is that the least bit satisfying?

It's great; I love it. I don't have any bad feelings at all about the golf gods or feel like I've been dealt a bad hand. I try to play every day.

No way you can get it back competitively?

No. It's been over a decade. I won one major; I was an OK player for 10 years. A lot of guys have gone through it, and I really admire the ones who've come out of it. But some guys, like Seve, are done. Must be hell for him. David Duval, No. 1 in the world, won the Open Championship ... It's been hell, although I think David's probably a happier person now because he's got a great new life.

Is that any consolation? I mean, you have a great life.

I've been given a mulligan. I've stopped being able to play well. I had to find something else to do. I was only in my mid-30s, and I got this opportunity to do some television work, and I ran with it. It's like that life's gone and this life has started.

__Your biggest victory came in the 1991 Open at Birkdale. The story is that someone put almost $250,000 on you to win at 50-to-1 odds the week before the championship, and that the bet paid off more than $12 million. __

Really? I had heard that I was the worst result ever for the bookies at that stage, but I didn't think it was that much money. A lot of players put money on me because I had been playing great for a year and I'd just lost in a playoff the week before.

Did you have a bet on yourself that week?

No. I never did when I was playing. But I could name 10 players who did. David Frost, Nick Price, both of their caddies, Fulton Allem ...

Which one made the most?

Dave McNeilly, Nick Price's caddie. Dave won enough that he bought a new car when he got home. He says, "Finchy, did I ever tell you that you bought me a car?" He's probably told me 10 times now.

How much do you figure winning that major earned you?

It had to have made me a couple million dollars over that next couple of years--the endorsement value and appearance fees around the world. But more than anything now, everyone fears what happens after a major: "Don't get too far ahead of yourself, because what happened to Finchy could happen to us." Through the mid-'90s, I could sense that in a lot of my friends' demeanor. It was almost like, Oh, you poor bastard; I hope it doesn't happen to me.

Some of those buddies went back a long way with you, to the developmental tours in Australia, and there were some characters. What was the weirdest thing that ever happened to you back then?

One of my greatest memories is from the Sunshine Tour through Queensland. Wayne Grady, John Downs, 10 of us got together, rented a bus for the two or three months. Well, John and I were the drivers. There was a cage behind us, thank God, and the others nicknamed us Mom and Dad. He was Mom and I was Dad, and the others sat in the back and drank beer and sang all of the great songs from the '70s. To this day, I know every word from every Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Creedence Clearwater Revival song.

One day we had a big drum full of beer and ice in the back. John and I, we were driving, but all the guys in the back decided, as we're driving through this town, they'd all get naked and flash the cars going past. Way too much to drink. A car in front of me stopped quickly, and I had to take the bus off the road down into a ditch. Drove it up through the ditch and back up onto the road.

To this day, we can't believe what would have happened if I had crashed: a bunch of naked guys in the back of this bus. Just guys learning how to play golf for a living.

You went from that to earning a 10-year exemption on tour available at the time for winning the Open. There's a theory that it really cost you, allowing you to over-experiment with your game.

It wasn't like, Hey, next week, I'm going to try to win the Grand Slam. I'm going to change my swing. Some people have said, "His desire to hit the ball farther caused him to tinker with his swing." Everyone's always trying to improve, because if you're not trying to improve, you're going backward.

I never really liked the look of my swing, which is strange, because when I look at it now it was actually pretty good. It just didn't look like the other great swings. The thing is, you've got to believe in yourself. When you lose that trust and you lose that belief ...

How does that happen?

It just happens. But it starts with either an injury or a flaw in your technique that you continue to work on and get worse. I was stubborn enough to keep hitting the driver and saying, "I'm not going to give up. I'm going to keep hitting this driver, and I'm going to figure it out." For a year, I'd hit 100 drives a day, just because I thought if I kept practicing I'd figure it out.

You need to have a shot that you can go to, and I lost the ability because I was hitting shots both ways. When I was a good player, the ball was never going left of the rough line--the left side of the course was out of play for me. I just hit a cut and knew I could keep it in play.

What goes through your mind when you no longer have a go-to shot?

You start second-guessing. What am I going to do? I have to get this in play. I'd go back to a 4-iron off the back foot and hit a low draw out there 200 yards. But I wasn't long enough to be able to compete.

The whole experience sounds frightening.

The frightening thing was, there were days when I could play really well, then the next day I'd hit three drives out-of-bounds and two in the water.

I could chip for an hour and hit every chip perfectly but duff the first one on the first hole. I could hit 25 to 100 drives perfectly on the range but snap hook it off the first tee. And if I hit a snap hook on the first, I was going to snap hook all day.

It became a mental issue, obviously. My 68 on Wednesday became 76 on Thursday and 86 in a major. It was like the bigger the event, the more pressure, the more tension, the higher the score.

In '97, you went to Troon and shot 92 in the first round of the Open. How?

For a start, I shouldn't have played. My back was not good. The night before, Peter Senior and a few other guys from the Australian tour said, "You're here, you might as well play." I thought, Yeah, you're right. I'd already sent my caddie home. I took a good friend of mine, Todd Woodbridge--the famous tennis player--out to caddie for me, so I wasn't really prepared for the situation. I could tell on the first tee my backswing was about a three-quarter swing, and normally I'm a little longer than parallel.

Having seen the tapes, I realize how nervous I was. And it just gradually got worse. I was so concerned about shooting a really bad score that it became impossible to play any shot well, especially drive the ball. And around Troon, if you're not driving the ball well, it's a nightmare, and that's what it became.

You lost your short game during that round, too?

Everything.

You had no shots?

Nothing.

As good a putter as you were, you even lost your stroke?

Everything. Putting, chipping, duffed a couple of chips, drove it in the left junk just about on every hole. I can remember walking up the 18th having teed off, and I felt like the grass was taller than me.

Was that the lowest point, after that round?

There's a little room there for the past champions. I had my coach at the time, Gary Edwin, and my wife, Jennie, was there with me, too. It was a pretty miserable time. It was then that I decided I had to step away from the game.

How tough was it on your family, watching your life's work crashing down on you?

I think my wife understood it and was as understanding as she could be. She was a great support. My kids were too young to really understand.

You're the type of person who emotes, though. Maybe your children were affected more than you thought.

They were certainly very affectionate when they knew I had played poorly. They'd just say, "Sorry you didn't play well, Daddy. It's good to have you home." I never made a cut for two years.

There were letters and telegrams of advice from all kinds of people.

Yeah, four or five thousand. Nightmare.

And you read them all.

I answered a lot of them. Finally I had a couple of form letters that I just sent back: "Dear Bill: Thanks very much for your concern. My game's on track, and I look forward to seeing you at the Open next year."

What was the weirdest advice you got?

How long do you have?

Just give me a few examples.

Weird stuff, like people sent me rocks. "Sleep for six weeks with this rock under the left side of your pillow, and then put it under the right side of the pillow and keep it in your left pocket at all times. This has worked for me. This is my gift."

One guy had this special mud spa in Italy. He said, "I'll pay for you to come over. It will exorcise the bad spirits."

But it was nice that so many people would even bother to write a note. They weren't all kooks. There were probably 50 from coaches, and from people who had written books, and scientists and people who had theories on the yips. I got a couple of letters from Deane Beman [former commissioner of the PGA Tour] who said, "I know exactly what you're going through. I've met this guy, and I really find him highly qualified. He really helped me."

But in the end, the mental ordeal had taken over from my desire to get out of it and be a player again. It was like, "I can't deal with it; I've had too much."

So that was me. I was too soft mentally, or not smart enough, or too emotional or whatever it is in my makeup. I was unable to really want to put myself through it again.

Have you commiserated with other high-profile guys who have struggled, players like Duval and Chip Beck and Bill Rogers?

I've hesitated to seem like a know-it-all about Duval's problems, because I never saw myself at the height that he reached. I was never No. 1; I was barely a top-10 kind of player. But yes, I've spoken to all three of them. David's probably at the point where he's had a gutful of advice.

The odd thing for you was that through all your troubles in competition, you could play effectively in practice rounds.

The difference was the tension level and the fear factor. If you're not confident, you know under the gun you're not going to be able to get it done. Sometimes you've got to fake it to make it.

Can you spot a faker?

You can spot someone who's playing with fear, because they hang on. The perfect analogy: seeing Hank Kuehne on the front nine and Hank Kuehne on the back nine at the "Battle at the Bridges" this past summer. You saw someone with this beautiful, fluid motion, great striker of the ball, makes two of the other three guys look like average hitters when he hits it well, and they made him look like a beginner because he was playing with fear. And his swing speed was 119. It's normally 135. And you could see that he was trying to hit it straight. He wasn't playing aggressively.

You talked about the anxiety of not knowing where the ball was going to go. In the first round of the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, you hit your opening tee shot out-of-bounds across the first and 18th fairways. Did the wind make your visor slip over your eyes on your downswing, or did you just hit a snap hook? It's been reported both ways.

I'd say it was 50-50. The wind was howling straight into us. Playing with Arnold Palmer in his last British Open in front of all those people. And that was a shot that I had a tendency to hit anyway. But just as I was starting my downswing, a gust of wind blew my hat off, and the hat was half off when I was getting to the ball. Obviously it was a bad shot. But I've got to say it landed right on the middle of the road, which spun it hard left out-of-bounds. A lot of people have reminded me: "Aren't you the guy who missed the fairway at St. Andrews. I've played there. You can't do ... "

You stand on that tee now and think, Man, how could I do that? I found a way.

The month before that shot at St. Andrews you played with Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open, and he invited you to come to his house for a couple of weeks to help sort out your game. Why didn't you go?

It's not like I said, No, thanks anyway, Jack. It wasn't that way at all. It was like, Whoa, I'd love to. It's just a matter of doing it.

So you never took him up on that offer?

No. In hindsight, I probably should have. I was also working on stuff that I really thought was going to get me out of the slump. I was trying not to deviate from the path too much. I needed to be with someone I could really work with. And now that I know Jack better, he would have been that guy.

It's funny that I've come from him being my idol as a young man growing up, to now sitting here with you doing this interview, sitting in the locker room in The Bear's Club with my locker in the founders' section, two lockers over from Jack's.

You've got some nice memories from majors as well. There's the 29 on the front nine the Sunday you won at Birkdale.

When I went back there in '98 for the Open, I had decided that after playing so poorly in '97 I wasn't going to play. I'd just signed on with ABC. I stood on the first tee, and I noticed there was a fence up the right-hand side, and there was an out-of-bounds, and there was a big mound over there and lots of long rough. I said, "Have they changed the tee here? Is this different from the way it was in '91?" And I played, and I thought, How the hell did I shoot 29?

Thirty-nine is a good score.

You also had a 29 at St. Andrews in the 1990 Open, and you ended up in the final pairing with Nick Faldo. What did you take from that experience?

I remember Nick's amazing focus, almost like I wasn't even there. Coming in, a number of times those last few holes in the late afternoon, I had to ask Nick to change his position because his shadow was bothering me. And it was almost like ... he certainly wasn't trying to do it, but it was almost like he wasn't even aware.

You were upset by it?

A little bit, yeah. Because I was playing well but not making the putts. I ended up sixth.

Your last competitive round on tour was at Colonial in 2001, where you won in 1989. But in 1993 you made headlines there by playing a shot in your boxers. Take us through what happened.

I still get a lot of ribbing about that. I hit it in the water at 13, down on the bank, but I could play it because the ball was on mud. I had really nice trousers on. In the summertime I never carried raingear because it was too hot to put it on; just used an umbrella. I realized I was going to get this gunk all over my trousers, and I thought, Ah, I've got boxers on. I took my pants off and jumped down over the bank. From then on, all the girls in the crowd followed me, and they kept singing out on every shot, "Hit it in the water! Hit it in the water!"

How about your most embarrassing moment as a TV announcer?

When you're in the booth there's a camera on all the time. And sometimes you're getting ready for the show, you don't really know that it's on you. One time I got up to tuck my shirt in, make my tie OK. Well, the camera was on me, and it was going into the players' lounge. I got a bit of ribbing for that one. Another time the cameras zoomed in on these fish during the Australian Open, and I said to my buddy, "You know, those fish are pretty big. They've been nibbling on the members' balls for years." Then I realized what I'd said. My buddy fell off his chair.

After Curtis Strange's departure, ABC hired Paul Azinger and Faldo for the lead-analyst job. Disappointed you didn't get the job?

I'm realistic. I think I'm better suited to the role as the 17th-hole guy, but there will still be a number of events, some on ESPN and some on ABC, where I'll be the lead analyst. Azinger and Faldo add a lot of credibility to our telecasts. And Zinger's not afraid to say what's on his mind. He'll tell it like it is; very similar to Johnny Miller in style.

Do you ever get the urge to get back out and play?

As I get later on into my 40s, I'll play more and more. I'd like to play some events on tour, the smaller events, or maybe the Colonial or a Nationwide Tour event or a couple back in Australia. When I get to 50, I'd like to really try to compete on the Champions Tour.

What's your lowest round this year?

Sixty-six at Jupiter Hills. Shot 67 at The Bear's Club. And Seminole in the 60s.

No big hooks off the tee?

No hooks. I can hit one bad one and not feel like the next one's going to be a bad one.

I hated the fact that I played badly for three or four years. To this day, I would love to be able to go out and play in a tournament and perform well, just to show the people, even one time, that I can still play and that I'm not a 90s-shooter. I would love that opportunity. But I had a time when I played well. I'm a has-been, but I'm not a never-was. At least I had my moment in the sun.

Was raised on a 25-acre farm 90 minutes from Brisbane, Australia. ... Got his first set of clubs at 12, two years after a group including his father built their own course. ... At 15, moved 120 miles from home to be an assistant golf pro for $40 a week. ... Once dated the daughter of five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson.