The lesson that changed Ian Baker-Finch’s golf career took place at the unlikely venue of Shadbolt Park in Auckland. The park, the home of the Suburbs Rugby Club, was serving as a makeshift practice fairway for the 1982 Air New Zealand - Shell Open being played at nearby Titirangi Golf Club in December. It was Thomson’s suggestion Baker-Finch had flown to New Zealand to contest the three events that would conclude the Australasian Tour season.
It was on this temporary facility that an impromptu lesson was given to the struggling young Queensland pro by Australia’s greatest golfer.
Baker-Finch had piqued Thomson’s interest the year before at the 1981 New South Wales Open. The young pro-played in the event with the current Open Champion, American Bill Rogers. Playing with the tournament drawcard, Baker-Finch at one stage scored six birdies in a row. The next week in the Australian PGA championship at Royal Melbourne, Baker-Finch ran hot again, this time playing with the Spanish star Seve Ballesteros. “Finchy,” as his mates called him, scored 30 on the front nine, attracting media attention and the further interest of Thomson. Baker-Finch may have been short off the tee, but he made up for that with a short game and putting stroke unmatched on the tour at the time.
At age 53 Thomson could still play. He was about to launch his spectacular, but brief, career on the US Senior Tour and was in New Zealand playing in events that he had enjoyed competing in since 1950. Over three decades Thomson had made many friends over the Tasman, but by 1982 he was bidding farewell to the circuit that he and Kel Nagle had dominated. Thomson had an unusual set of interests for a pro golfer - writing, reading, painting and listening to classical music. By 1982 his course design business was thriving and earlier in the year he had even dabbled unsuccessfully in politics. Thomson could at times appear rather aloof and did not hand out advice to every young professional. Earlier in the year in Australia a young pro sought Thomson’s counsel, hoping for detailed advice from the great man. Thomson cryptically advised the crestfallen young player that he should try to “shoot lower scores.”
There was something about Baker-Finch that drew Thomson to the young Queenslander.
Baker-Finch recalls his struggles of the early 80s. He did not look much like winning anything and recalls “it was at Peter’s suggestion that I was playing in New Zealand at the end of 1982. Our practice ground for the Air New Zealand – Shell Open was a public park not far from Titirangi. Peter had taken an interest in my golf the previous year and there I was, hitting the ball terribly as he happened to wander past. My problem was a weak high fade off the tee. He watched briefly as I cut several shots on to the road. He stepped in and said to me “this is what I think you should do.” This was the first time he changed my swing.”
Baker-Finch had learned golf on a nine-hole country course in rural Queensland at Beerwah, using a copy of the Nicklaus book “Golf My Way” as his guide, practising hard and mimicking the Golden Bear’s swing. Nicklaus positioned his hands high on his back swing, with a steep arc and a high follow-through. The method worked well for Nicklaus with his immense strength, but for Baker-Finch it only served to contribute to a high, weak cut. Thomson’s method was the opposite of Nicklaus’s. Thomson studied Ben Hogan first hand on the American Tour in the 1950s. Hogan’s swing was on a flatter, more powerful plane. His delivery of club back to the ball resembled more of a hit than a swing.
The lesson Thomson gave to Baker-Finch in December 1982 was simple. His feet were repositioned, and the ball moved back in his stance. Thomson encouraged his pupil to make a bigger turn on a flatter arc. Magically Baker-Finch started finding the centre of the park. He was almost instantly drawing the ball on a lower flight in the process gaining more distance. It would take time, but Baker-Finch was on his way.
There was a stark contrast in the appearances of master and pupil during that career changing session at Titirangi. Thomson was dressed conservatively in shades of white and grey in the style of his idol Hogan. Baker-Finch, tall with long dark hair had a liking for brightly coloured (often pink) clothing.
After returning to Australia from the New Zealand circuit Baker-Finch received a surprise invitation to spend the Christmas holidays with the Thomson family at their holiday home in Portsea on the Mornington Peninsula. Delighted to accept, Baker-Finch spent four weeks soaking up everything that Thomson could pass on to the 22-year-old about golf.
In 2023 Baker-Finch recalled “I think Peter could see that I really wanted to succeed at golf. We played a lot together. I asked him what he did to exercise for golf, and he said – “I walk, what else would I do”? So, we would walk on the beach together. After finishing a round with him, I would want to go and hit balls, but he would say “take four balls and go and play the 17th and 18th - make four with them all, learn how to win.”
Baker-Finch reflects ‘I could fill a whole chapter with what he taught me. He passed on these pearls of wisdom about scoring and winning that I still remember today. It was just what I needed at that stage of my career.”
Later in 1983 Baker-Finch would return to New Zealand to win the New Zealand Open at Middlemore - his first professional victory. The same event had also been Thomson’s first professional win - 33 years before. Practising before the 1984 Open at St Andrews Thomson gave Baker-Finch a four-round masterclass on how to navigate the intricacies of the Old Course. Baker-Finch surprised everyone, apart from Thomson, to lead a world class field after three rounds of his first major. Learning from that 1984 experience, he would turn on one of the great performances in 1991 at Royal Birkdale to win the event that he had dreamt of playing in as a boy – The Open Championship.
The pupil had learned his lessons well.