In July 1996, Baker-Finch finally stopped putting his misery under glass. He gave up on the U.S. Tour and moved home to the Gold Coast. Before he left Orlando he stopped by Stewart's house to say goodbye. They could hardly speak. "I just hate to see good people suffer," says Stewart. They stood in the hallway and cried.
For six months Baker-Finch worked on his game in private. "Somewhere inside me, I figured it was still there," he says. Playing by himself or with friends, he got better. Of course, peacetime golf, mother-in-law golf, means nothing, because the fear of embarrassment is not there. Still, he flew to Ireland the week before the '97 British Open to play in a small pro-am in County Wicklow. He shot 69. Then he flew to Scotland to do some television work for ABC at the British Open and enter the tournament. He played a few practice rounds at Troon with his buddies and was right around par, but now he was unsure about entering because his back had flared up in Ireland. Then another Australian player, Peter Senior, barked, "Don't be so bloody stupid, Finchy! I know how hard you've been working! Just go out and do it! Suck it up! Try your hardest."
Golf is like sex. Trying your hardest is the worst thing you can do. Yet Baker-Finch thought, He's right. I can't just give up. He played. "Worst decision I ever made in my life," he says.
He hit the 1st fairway and made par. But he doubled the 2nd with a bad chip, doubled the 6th with a hooked drive, doubled the Postage Stamp 8th out of the left bunker, bogeyed the first three holes on the back and doubled the 13th with a hooked drive. Hole by hole, whatever milliliters of confidence he'd built up over six months leaked out his spikes. Walking with him, his friend Gary Edwin, a golf coach, prayed that Baker-Finch would pull out of the tournament with a suddenly bulging disk or an instantly sprained thumb. "I thought about it," the golfer says, "but it didn't seem right." A Baker-Finch to the end.
He tripled the 16th by hitting his drive out-of-bounds right, then the second one off the map left. He doubled the par-3 17th. He needed to eagle the 452-yard par-4 18th to keep his score under 90. Sure. "That was the absolute worst feeling I've ever known," he says, "walking up the 18th at the British Open about to shoot 92. That made the shot at St. Andrews feel like chicken feed."
By then his nerves were a frayed knot. Fans and reporters lined the fail-way to see for themselves if it was true that a British Open champion was coming in with a 20-handicapper's score. Lying two and faced with a simple 60-yard chip to the hole, he finally surrendered to the fear. He took out an eight-iron and dribbled the ball onto the putting green, not trusting himself to put another ball into the air lest he skull, shank, snap or slice it into yet another parking lot, membership lounge or woman's handbag. It was the equivalent of taking off your skis and walking down the jump ramp.
The blood drained from his face, the life from his eyes. He signed his scorecard, limply shook a few hands and took his wife and Edwin to the one room where almost nobody else would be—the Champions Room, reserved for men who have won the British Open. In the 137 years of the event, no champion had ever entered it like that. He ignored the plush chairs and couches and collapsed on the floor, with Jennie in a ball, crying, next to him, and Edwin staring blankly ahead, numb. They stayed like mat for 45 minutes, hiding from the press and fans who were looking in through the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of the touring pro from the Country Club of Hell.
Then Baker-Finch got up and did what nobody but he would do. He went into the pressroom, swallowed hard and answered questions. "I can't get any lower than this," he admitted. It was so humiliating that some writers couldn't bring themselves to scribble the words in their notepads.
That night, bellhop after bellhop filled Baker-Finch's room with flowers, champagne and beer from players, but it was useless. The next day the scoreboard read WD next to Baker-Finch's name. You can't, however, withdraw from a 92 in front of the world. Baker-Finch flew back to Australia knowing there was only one thing he could do.