Baker-Finch: A Notable Absentee at Birkdale

Ian Baker-Finch salutes the enormous crowd at Royal Birkdale after his 1991 Open Championship victory.
Ian Baker-Finch won’t be at Royal Birkdale this week, the scene of his greatest career triumph. Instead, he’ll be back home at Palm Beach, Florida, having skin cancers burnt off – an annual ritual brought about by too many years in the Queensland sun.

Now a successful golf analyst with the CBS network in the US, Baker-Finch has one week’s holiday between early April and September and it’s always this week, when the British Open features the game’s elite and the PGA Tour stages the Barbasol Championship for those left behind.

Rather than make the pilgrimage to the watery sunshine of Southport, on England’s north-west coast, the Australian will kick back at home and watch the tournament with his family and friends, the final groups teeing off on the weekend about the same time the Baker-Finchs will be cooking up their waffles for breakfast.

But it’s always a bitter-sweet time of year for the genial Queenslander.

For when the Open comes around each July, and especially when those Opens are hosted at Royal Birkdale, Baker-Finch knows he will be hounded for interviews and reminiscences.

Of course, he loves re-living that magical Sunday in 1991 when he went out in 29 shots, on the way to a final-round 66, and became just the fourth Australian to hold aloft the championship’s famous trophy, the Claret Jug.

But he also understands that the interest in that triumph has a slightly perverse edge: that it only serves to highlight his sudden and extraordinary loss of form over the ensuing years that effectively ended his career.

It’s a story that’s been well told, and doesn’t need repeating. Except to say Baker-Finch was ranked in the world’s top 10 after his two-stroke win at Birkdale then, three years later, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. His game and his confidence deserted him, just like that. After mid-1994, he did not make a cut in 32 PGA Tour events, and just one in 55-odd tournaments around the world.

He went through 30 coaches, psychologists, hypnotists, nutritionists, healers, gurus, swing doctors and spiritualists. And from a sea of well-wishers, he has received more than 4500 letters containing maps, prescriptions, poems, mantras, gadgets, potions, recipes and lucky charms.

All to no avail.

Baker-Finch approaches the 71st green at the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

When the Open was next played at Royal Birkdale, in 1998, Baker-Finch had hoped he could rediscover enough form just to allow him to compete and take his place in the field. But his game was in such dreadful shape – and the memory of his horror 92 at the previous year’s Open at Royal Troon still vivid – that he opted not to enter.

But he did visit the fabled links in the month prior to the Open, having agreed to an interview with a Japanese television network about his 1991 win, and on one day played a practice round.

The grandstands had already been erected for the Open, giving it the feel of British golf's biggest week, and the course from the back tees was playing devilishly difficult in biting wind and rain. 

As he was walking up the final hole, with the Japanese journalist and camera crew trailing behind him, Baker-Finch heard a noise - faint at first then building to a crescendo - coming from behind the green.

Unbeknown to him, the club's general manager, Norman Crewe, had made a tape of the broadcast of Baker-Finch’s win as he walked to the 18th green in 1991. Crewe and some of his staff had rigged up large speakers to the grandstands so when Baker-Finch appeared up the 18th fairway, they let him have it, full blast, through the makeshift sound system.

All of a sudden the Lancashire air was full of the sound of cheers, clapping, roars and whistling. All for the beleaguered Australian who had forgotten what it was like to be applauded.

Surrounded by this wall of sound, Baker-Finch walked up to the green and momentarily felt as if the clock had been turned back to a time when he was one of the world's best players.

If he closed his eyes, it was 1991 all over again and he was walking up to the 72nd green, waving to the crowd, acknowledging their applause, kissing his wife, Jennie, receiving a bottle of French champagne from his old Queensland mate, Wayne Grady, then, in that timeless pose, kissing the Claret Jug.

As Baker-Finch drank in the scene, he looked up to the clubhouse and saw Crewe, the club captain, members, staff and barmen lining the windows and balconies, standing up to applaud him, the last Open champion at Birkdale and one of the most popular names to grace its trophy.

The gesture overwhelmed Baker-Finch, who struggled to maintain his composure.

"They played the tape and it was unbelievable. Just unbelievable," he said from Florida this week. "Everyone stood in the clubhouse – they knew it was happening and I didn't – and they were all up there cheering and clapping as I came up the last hole.

"It was unbelievable, I was fighting back the tears that were welling up in my eyes, it was an amazing experience, very special."

Seven years after his scintillating final two rounds at Birkdale, Baker-Finch couldn’t fathom how he had played so well around such a demanding layout. "I can't believe I was such a good player to shoot 64, 66 on the weekend around such a hard course," he said. "It's bloody tough, the rough was unbelievable."

This week, somewhere in suburban North Palm Beach, a widescreen TV will be tuned in to NBC’s telecast from Royal Birkdale and the tallest Australian in the room will allow himself a quiet smile as he remembers that wonderful week 26 years ago, a time when he was among the game’s best players and no course was ever too tough for him.  


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