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Driven Mad
Rick Reilly
February 23, 1998
After winning the 1991 British Open, Ian Baker-Finch lost his game and, in a desperate effort to find it, nearly lost his mind
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February 23, 1998

Driven Mad

After winning the 1991 British Open, Ian Baker-Finch lost his game and, in a desperate effort to find it, nearly lost his mind

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A: Finchy's. You get weekends off!

It looked as if the agony was over that August, when he shot 67 on the first day of the World Series and was two shots off the lead. The next day he lost all 10 balls in his bag and shot 82 (with only 21 putts). If his caddie hadn't had a spare ball in his overalls pocket, Baker-Finch would've been disqualified. He finished second to last.

Then things got bad.

Dearest Mr. Ian Baker-Finch,
Sleep with this Indian stone under your pillow. It resonates with your spirit. You have given away your own power. You have forgotten the beauty of your own soul
.
CAROL, New South Wales

It was not in his swing anymore. It was in his mind. He would sit straight up in bed after dreams of never hitting another fairway. He would drive along a road, see a golf hole and think, How in the world do people hit that fairway? Psychologist Bob Rotella asked Baker-Finch to visualize himself hitting a fairway. He couldn't.

One day at the '94 Hyundai Masters in Seoul, he shot 66 in the pro-am, breaking the course record. The next day, when it counted, he shot 81. At the Masters in '95, he hit 50 perfect practice drives in a row, all of them to the same practice-range pole 250 yards away. Then he went to the 1st tee and dead-yanked his drive so far left that it fell in the 9th fairway. "It got a little freaky," he says. "I'd be hitting it so good on the range, I came this close to telling the caddie to wait for me on the tee with the ball teed up. When it was just a minute before I was supposed to hit, he could yell to me and I'd sprint to the tee and hit it, not give myself time to get scared."

Golf is tightrope dancing without a net, because the excuses have been removed from the game. The problem was not the un-hittable sinker or the unavoidable block. It was not the refs or the offensive line. It was just you, striking an inert sphere placed conveniently on a peg. Teachers often finish a lesson by saying, "Now just trust it." But for Baker-Finch, that was the catch. He could not trust it because he could not trust himself. "I can't tell you how bad it feels to feel so badly about yourself," he says.

He was losing it. He could look at a white picket fence and see nothing but out-of-bounds stakes. The players have a name for this, "the full-body yips," and he had the worst case they'd ever seen. Most guys would stare at their shoes when Baker-Finch swung, hoping it wasn't contagious. He would stand on the tee before he'd drive and darkly mutter, "Look out, left."

"You can't imagine what it's like," says Bill Rogers, who was Baker-Finch before Baker-Finch was. Rogers, now the director of golf at the San Antonio Country Club, won the 1981 British Open and then dropped out of sight. He went from '81 PGA player of the year to 134th on the money list in only three years, and he finally quit in 1988. "See, you've dug yourself such a deep hole, you don't know if you can squeeze the ball in a double fairway," he says. "One time I stood on the 14th fairway at St. Andrews—how wide is that thing, 200 yards?—and didn't believe I could get it on the grass. I pumped three out-of-bounds one day there. You just live in fear of it, from the minute you wake up in bed."

Even Rogers never endured what Baker-Finch endured in 1995. Playing 24 tournaments, he missed every cut, shot in the 80s one out of every four rounds and broke par only twice. He shot 85 at the Players, 79-81 at the Masters, 84 at the Memorial, 80 at the PGA, twin 81s at the Buick and 84 at Disney, averaging four penalty strokes per round. He went home a failure every Friday night, and when his little girls—Hayley, then 6, and Laura, 4—asked, "Daddy, did you bring us back a trophy?" he tried like hell not to cry.

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