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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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He's had some banner days since then. He shot 67 at a pro-am in late October. A couple of weeks later he made eight birdies at his home course, Hope Island, with Australian tycoon Kerry Packer in tow. But when we showed up from the U.S. for this story, he was hooking short irons off the practice range. Edwin grimaced. "He wasn't doing that before you got here," he grumbled.

In October, Baker-Finch finished sixth against a whole lot of nobodies near Brisbane and cashed a check for $600. Not much, but $600 more than he made around the world in 1995. If he wants to play golf for a living, he doesn't have much choice but to play minuscule events. He has lost his big sponsorship deals, and there are not a lot of corporations that want a pro to come out and give clinics to executives he might not be able to beat straight up.

Mr. Finch,
Change your prayer habits
.
ANONYMOUS

In December, Baker-Finch finally stuck his toe back in the Australasian tour, at its smallest, friendliest tournament, the Coolum Classic, 30 minutes from his house. To his horror, the Australian press was waiting. Four stories about him ran in one paper the morning he was to tee off. In two hours on the course he undid five months of work. He was four-over after seven holes. He doubled the 8th, hooking it everywhere. He rinsed two in the lake on 9, threw his driver into a tree and picked up his ball, DQ. When he stomped into the clubhouse, five years of holding his tongue, five years of smiling while his pants were on fire, five years of being just so damn decent about everything went kablooey.

"Why can't you leave me alone?" he snapped at reporters. "Why does everyone have to have a photo of me? Why does everyone have to have quotes? Why does everyone have to know what I shot?" People are interested in you, a reporter said. "Oh, yeah? Like all the other sadists and people who want to see me do poorly?"

Hey, even Mary went completely Rhoda now and then.

The next week Baker-Finch told a friend he was quitting, and it made the papers and then the wires. But Baker-Finch says it's not true. "Retired?" he says. "Retired is a pretty big word for somebody 37 years old. I'm just not going to play for a couple or three years. I'm not going to put myself through it for a while. That's it."

Looking back on it, maybe Baker-Finch wanted too much from himself. Or maybe he's just an example of the golf gods saying, "O.K., we'll give you goodness, looks and family, but ask for more, and you also get this serial-killer snap hook."

Baker-Finch does not need to go to Birkdale in July to walk with his head up. Through his 672-year ordeal, golf's Job has been graceful and dignified and brave. Under a dump-truck load of embarrassment, he's kept his sense of humor. When people get too morbid, he pulls up his sweater sleeves and shows his wrists: "See?" he says. "No slash marks!" There's even an Australian television ad with a caddie holding a flagstick as Baker-Finch remains stuck in a bunker below, the hole he's in growing deeper by the swing and the pile of sand on the green mounting. The announcer says, "Not going anywhere for a while?" as the caddie rips open his candy bar.

"He has always been so good and strong about everything," says Jennie. "Never once has he taken it out on me or the kids. He's still the best father and husband. Inside, he's completely torn up, but the worst he does is go out on the porch and smoke."

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