NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Two days before Australian Ian Baker-Finch is to make his debut on the Champions Tour, he hits his first shot in a pro am round at Newport Beach Country Club.
The ball flies effortlessly over a small pond on the 143-yard par 3 and comes to rest 12 feet below the hole.
It is an excellent shot, but it is not in a competition and no one realizes that more than Baker-Finch.
“The most important competition is actually playing, putting the pencil on the card, shooting a score when it counts, when the cameras are on,” Baker-Finch said.
Baker-Finch’s inability to do that is what made him walk away from professional golf at the age of 36 after shooting an opening round 92 at the 1997 British Open and promptly withdrawing.
After years of purgatory, Baker-Finch is ready to return to competition Friday in Southern California, even if it is in a limited capacity.
“Not many people wish their lives away and can’t wait until they get to 50,” Baker-Finch said. “But to get a chance to come out and play on the Champions Tour is going to be a great thrill for me.”
That enthusiasm is slightly tempered by thoughts of the past repeating itself.
“It’s not a nervousness, it’s more of maybe a fear of failure, or just apprehension,” Baker-Finch said. “It troubles me so much that you feel bad about yourself. It’s not an anger management thing. It’s more of trying to make emotions be more positive rather than down. But I think I will be fine.”
Baker-Finch’s performance in the 1997 British Open was his second major letdown at the oldest major championship.
The first came two years earlier when his opening tee shot at St. Andrews hooked left out of bounds. Considering the opening hole’s generous fairway, it was considered almost impossible to hit one out of bounds.
It was a stretch of frustration for Baker-Finch, who was sliding into obscurity. In 1991, Baker-Finch won the British Open. From 1993 to 1997, he played in 70 events and missed the cut in 46 and withdrew five times.
Injuries were part of the problem. Baker-Finch had knee and shoulder issues in 1994 but also had a strong voice in his head telling him he could no longer play professionally.
“It had become ingrained in me and the scar tissue was so thick I couldn’t relax enough to compete,” Baker-Finch said. “I think a lot of people thought I lost my game and couldn’t play at all, but I was always capable of shooting under 70 every time I played. But under pressure I couldn’t relax enough to play the way I played. I got so down I felt like I was two inches tall some days.”
So when many professional golfers are in their prime, Baker-Finch was washed up. A battalion of sports psychologists and swing trainers couldn’t get Baker-Finch out of his own head.
“The reason the good players are really good is that they let those thoughts go,” Baker-Finch said. “They focus on what they’re doing and their routine is sharp.”
He turned to broadcasting and has enjoyed a successful career as a golf analyst, but the desire to play again never left. This isn’t a comeback, however. Baker-Finch plans to play four events on the Champions Tour and can’t play more because of his obligations to CBS, TNT and an Australian TV network.