Before Duval, there was Baker-Finch

Ian Baker-Finch a cautionary tale after his struggles following his 1991 British Open title.

Ian Baker-Finch loves golf.

The truth is he should hate it. Especially during this, of all weeks.

As a past champion, Baker-Finch should be competing at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. But, for the 15th straight year, the CBS television analyst won’t be in the field at the British Open, which begins Thursday.

“I would like to be able to compete and enjoy the experience, but I know I couldn’t. So I don’t concern myself with it,” he says. “I’m not going to put myself through it.

“I know that I’d put myself through so much pain and anxiety leading up to it that it’s not worth doing it.”

While it’s true that golf gave him much, it took away more.

It turned a genial Aussie with 17 wins around the world into, at best, a cautionary tale, and, at worst, a train wreck.

A decade before David Duval went from British Open champion — 11 years ago this week, here at Lytham — to clueless, Baker-Finch set the template.

In 1991, he shot 64-66 on the weekend to win the claret jug at Royal Birkdale.

The accolades poured in as he cracked the top 10 in the world and was crowned “The Dark Shark” — an homage to his fellow Aussie Greg Norman.

Everyone expected bigger things. Unfortunately, at the top of that list was Baker-Finch himself. And it proved his undoing.

Determined to get better, Baker-Finch became afflicted by the disease that claims so many golfers: the search for the perfect swing.

He tinkered so much with a swing he didn’t like that, in the end, he was listening to anyone who walked down a range with a swing tip. He tried them all, most of them many times over.

Inevitably, he lost his confidence, and soon after, his nerve.

“It’s a very sad story,” says David Leadbetter, one of the many coaches he employed only to disregard.

He missed 32 cuts in a row on the PGA Tour from 1994-97.

Typical of his nature, he soothed the pain by making jokes about being Father of the Year because he was always home with his family on weekends.

Gallows humor, indeed.

By 1995, only four years removed from his greatest triumph, Baker-Finch was in free fall. His duck hooks off the tee had become legendary.

At the Masters, a gallery marshal radioed a colleague on the left side of the first hole, warning him to put on his hard hat because Baker-Finch was on the tee. But worse came at that year’s British Open, at St. Andrews.

Baker-Finch had dreamed that he did the near impossible and hit a ball out-of-bounds left on the most expansive fairway in all of golf. He then lived the nightmare, playing alongside Arnold Palmer who was competing in his final Open.

“It was St Andrews, playing in a 40-mph wind with Arnie In his last Open championship in front of 20,000 people,” he recalls. “It was a big deal.

“I’m aiming down left side in hard left-to-right wind. I’m a bit jumpy, anyway, and my hat blows off in the middle of the swing.

“Just horrendous,” he says, his voice tapering.

But it got worse.

Fifteen years ago, Baker-Finch showed up at Royal Troon and wasn’t going to play, but some of his mates told him he had been playing well in practice — a source of constant frustration, that he could play well until the bell rang — and should face his demons.

So he did. And got slaughtered by them.

Baker-Finch shot an opening 92, a score so shockingly horrendous for a major champion that it caused him to promptly withdrew.

Ian Woolridge, the late, great Fleet Street sportswriter, wrote that it was “like watching a great surgeon whose hands have started to tremble or a concert pianist who has utterly lost his nerve . . . In the end, spectating became sheer voyeurism, intrusion into private grief.”

At 36 years old, Baker-Finch retired.

“I’m not going to base my quitting the game just on that one round, but it was certainly the last round I played seriously,” he says.

But then, at his darkest moment, came a silver lining.

Searching for “a way to feel good about myself again,” he got a call asking if he would interested in becoming a television golf analyst.

“In golf, you’re not supposed to get mulligans, but I got one,” he says.

He has reinvented himself into one of the most recognizable voices in the sport.

And he still plays, though mainly what the pros call civilian golf.

“I can play in front of galleries, at times," Baker-Finch said. "I won a tournament (in Australia) last year, but it’s where I feel comfortable, a small event back home. I feel I can compete, and I’m in a different frame of mind.

“With me, it’s obviously a mental thing, an anxiety thing because even when I was missing cuts I’d go home and shoot 66 with my mates or I’d win the pro-am and then go out and shoot 81.

“There’s lots of scar tissue, and the bigger the event, the worse the score I’d shoot.

Doesn’t he miss the buzz?

“Once you’ve stepped aside for as long as I have, I’m just as fired up about playing Oakmont, Chicago Golf Club,” he says.

“One day I might find something in my swing that clicks and allows me to compete, but for now, I’ve made my bed and I’m going to lie in it.

“Television is something I love, so I have no complaints at all.”

And now, when he’s playing and the snap hook comes, he immediately reaches into his pocket, shrugs and hits another one.

“Golf’s meant to be fun, isn’t it?”

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