To Hell and Back - Ian Baker Finch

The Ian Baker-Finch story is one of triumph followed by adversity.

It seems hard to believe that over 30 years have elapsed since an Australian last held the Claret Jug and was crowned ‘’The Champion Golfer of the Year’’. Ian Baker- Finch was Australia’s fourth and last Open champion in 1991. His dominant win was followed by more success, and then a catastrophic loss of form for the talented and likeable player.

Six years after his win, Baker-Finch’s last round in a major championship may be the most harrowing tale of professional golf. The closing scene of this disaster was set at Royal Troon on the 17th of July 1997. He had won the Claret jug in 1991 at Royal Birkdale, closing with two triumphant final rounds of 64 and 66. Within a mere six years he was struggling to make contact with the ball.

He stood on the 18th tee at Troon needing an impossible eagle two on the 452-yard hole to break 90. He eventually finished the last hole with a double bogey 6 to score 92. He was unable to face a conventional 60-yard wedge shot to the final green for his third. His nerve was gone, and in the manner of a 20 handicapper, he bunted the ball along the ground onto the green with his 8 iron. He putted out ashen faced and left the course as quickly as possible. He signed for his score and made his way with his wife Jennie, and his caddie Todd Woodbridge, the tennis player, to the safety of the Champions Room in the Troon clubhouse. Once there, he collapsed on the floor for 45 minutes in the foetal position, crying. Baker-Finch is certainly no coward. He pulled himself together as well as he could and faced the press. He readily, and publicly, admitted that he had reached rock bottom. The press corps were sympathetic, and some could hardly bring themselves to report the tragedy that they had just witnessed.

Ian Baker-Finch withdrew from the 1997 Open after that disastrous first round and has not competed in a another major to this day - despite an exemption that would have allowed him to play in the Open until 2025, the year of his 65th birthday.

The Baker-Finch story is testament to just how cruel golf can be.

What went wrong, and what caused such an inexplicable loss of form for a world-class player?

His upbringing is a typical Australian story. He was brought up in the small town of Nambour in Queensland. In his early teens he decided the only path for him was to pursue a career as a professional golfer. His working-class background gave him a strong work ethic. In his early years he worked at the Gympie golf club, and then moving to the equally humble Caloundra Golf Club. He did whatever menial jobs were required to make his living as an assistant at the two courses. He turned professional in 1979 at the age of 19 and worked hard to make a living on the Australasian tour. His big break came in 1983 while he was practising prior to the 1983 New Zealand Open. Never long off the tee, his ball flight at the time was a weak, but controllable high fade. His mentor, the great Peter Thomson, gave him a brief but effective lesson on the practice tee prior to the tournament. Baker-Finch related to AAP some years later ‘’I was hitting balls on the range, and Peter told me to put the ball back in my stance and swing around my body so I could hit the ball lower and with a draw’’.

The simple, but effective, tip from Thomson bore fruit immediately as he won the 1983 New Zealand Open by 3 shots at the Auckland Golf Club.

The victory gained him entry to the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1984. The Old Course, with its bumps, hollows and concealed bunkers requires considerable local knowledge. In his debut major Baker-Finch again benefited from the advice of the five-time, and by then 53-year-old, Open maestro Peter Thomson. He had the benefit of four practice rounds with Thomson, Kel Nagle and Graham Marsh as he took a crash course in navigating around the venerable old links. Again, the Thomson advice paid off for the 24-year-old, as he found himself leading after three rounds. He disappeared off the leader board in the last round with a score of 79, as Seve Ballesteros slashed his way past him for his second Open win. No matter, Baker-Finch had competed on the world stage and had learnt a lot in a crash course in majors golf. Fast forwarding to the 1990 Open, at St Andrews again, he found himself in contention after three rounds and tied for second with Payne Stewart. The third-round leader, Nick Faldo, took that one comfortably in a commanding performance, but Baker-Finch was not completely disgraced this time, finishing with a better final round of 73 to tie for sixth with Greg Norman.

In 1991 it all fell into place for the pink-shirted, stylish golfer with the great short game. His first two rounds of 71 were steady, but masterful final rounds of 64 and 66 disposed of the rest of the field at Birkdale for a life-changing major victory.

There seems to be a myth that Baker-Finch’s golf immediately fell to pieces after the 1991 Open Championship. The truth is somewhat different. He contended in the majors, and on the US and Australian circuits, for the next three years. This is evidenced by his runner-up finish in the Players Championship in 1992, wins in Australia 1992 and in 1993, and a tie for 10th in the Masters in 1994. His world ranking during those three years climbed as high as 10.

Then it all completely unravelled – why?

Baker-Finch had started taking advice from anyone, principally about a perceived lack of length off the tee. Fellow players gave him advice, coaches gave him even more advice - at times unsolicited. He consulted a never-ending list of top coaches. David Leadbetter was a voice of sanity in trying to convince his pupil that there was nothing too much wrong with his long game. Leadbetter commented in 2004 to the Irish Times that ‘’he had the perfect game for the majors. He was not ultra-long, but was very steady, with a beautiful short game, a great, great putter. But he was never content. To get longer; that was his downfall’’.

In 2015 his old friend and mentor Peter Thomson, echoed similar sentiments when reflecting on his younger friend’s career. ‘’Ian’s story is a tragedy. He was one of the best players in the world from 100 yards out and had absolutely no need to acquire extreme length. He was a well-balanced and elegant player who needed to do little to continue to succeed’’.

As a player, Baker-Finch was finished by 1995. His game had deserted him. He missed 32 straight cuts on the US PGA Tour and his income from playing was reduced to nil. He continued to try coach after coach. He moved back to Australia to be close to the top Australian coach Gary Edwin. He had already tried Hank Haney, Chuck Cook, Jim Flick, and Rick Smith. He listened to other players who tried to alleviate his distress with well-meaning advice. He acknowledged that a major part of his problems was psychological, and he had taken advice from Bob Rotella and other sports psychologists – without success.

At the 1995 Open Championship he stood on the first tee at St Andrews with a huge gallery looking on. He was playing with Arnold Palmer in the great man’s farewell Open. He had, typically, hit the ball sweetly during his warmup for the round. The first tee at St Andrews has a fairway opening in front of it that is almost impossible to miss. No caddie at St Andrews could remember any player, let alone a past Open Champion, hitting the ball out of bounds to the left and missing a fairway that was 170 yards wide. Baker-Finch managed to achieve that feat with a humiliating first drive that hit the road (Granny Clark’s Wynd) crossed the 18th fairway, and then bounced out of bounds - to the dismay of all those watching. 

By 1996 he had given up on the US Tour completely and prepared to return home to Queensland’s Gold Coast. He did stop by Payne Stewart’s house in Orlando to bid his friend and fellow player farewell. Neither player could speak, and both were left in tears by the parting.

Even after the ultimate humiliation of that 92 in the first round of Troon in 1997, Ian Baker-Finch did not give up. He was a fighter, and back in Queensland, on his home turf, he willingly submitted to coach Gary Edwin in a bid to try to virtually relearn the game of golf. He stood in front of the mirror and practiced tiny golf swings. Sadly, it was too late for any sort of Renaissance in the Baker-Finch game. Sports Illustrated quoted Edwin in 1998 when it said of Baker-Finch ‘’that swing is gone, and it’s never coming back. Ian’s technique stunk’’.

There were periods where he would play competently. There was the odd low score in the low-pressure environment of local pro-ams. He could strike 50 balls in practice perfectly adequately. Then, when he stood on the first tee of the course, with a card and a pencil in his pocket, and a fairway in front of him, he knew he was doomed. He had the equivalent of the putting ‘’yips’’ but with his full swing. There could be no saviour by switching to a long putter. There is no driver remedy for the full body yips.

In 1998 there was a fleeting moment where Baker-Finch and his coach Edwin thought there may be a chance. He played some good rounds on his home course of Hope Island on the Gold Coast. There had even been a tiny cheque won in a local pro-am. The major champion had a faint glimmer of hope in a resurgence. In 1998 he entered the Coolum Classic on the Sunshine Coast. This event on the Australasian tour had a relaxed family atmosphere and was contested over a course that would have suited the old Baker-Finch. It all fell to pieces. He double bogeyed the relatively easy par-5 eighth hole, proceeded to hit two tee shots into the lake on the ninth, picking up his ball to disqualify himself at the same time as hurling his driver into a tree. Now it really was over for Baker-Finch the player. For years he had been so restrained, and so gentlemanly in distress. Even this deserted him, as he berated the sizable group of journalists watching on, labelling them ‘’sadists’’.

So how does this tragic story end?

The story has a happy ending. In 1997 CBS approached Baker-Finch with a lifeline. The broadcaster suggested he may like to consider an on-course position in their golf commentary team. Initially sceptical, the Baker-Finches discussed the opportunity – and they decided to take it. From 1998 on Ian Baker-Finch has appeared on ESPN as a lead analyst, a hole announcer for ABC, and finally as a CBS Sports golf announcer. He carries out his broadcasting duties professionally and positively. He is insightful and clearly well respected by both the players and fans in a game he still loves. It seems hard now to imagine that this tall, likeable 62-year-old has been through the golfing equivalent of a journey to hell and back.

After his period in the wilderness, golf gave Ian Baker-Finch a well-deserved second chance.