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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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You sure you want to read this? You sure you don't want to stop right now? Don't kid yourself—if you play golf, this could happen to you. If it could happen to a guy as talented and handsome and decent as Ian Baker-Finch, it could happen to anybody.

Seven years ago this July, Baker-Finch hit every fairway and every green, shot 66 and won the British Open at Royal Birkdale. He was handed the silver claret jug. He kissed his gorgeous blonde wife and their two-year-old daughter, who thought the microphone was an ice-cream cone and licked it. He was so overcome he couldn't speak. It was the day all his dreams came true.

It was the crudest thing that ever happened to him.

Baker-Finch is now in the single worst slump in golf history. He has made one cut in the last three years, none in the last two. He is 0 for his last 32 tries on the PGA Tour. At the 1995 British Open, at St. Andrews, playing with no less a personage man Arnold Palmer, Baker-Finch snap-hooked his first drive so wickedly that it cleared two fairways and went out-of-bounds off number 18, more than 170 yards dead to his left. Caddies at St. Andrews couldn't remember anybody doing that before. Not tour pros. Not even tourists. At the '97 British Open, at Royal Troon, Baker-Finch shot 92, the worst score by a past champion in modern times. Since May 1994 he has made less than $20,000 worldwide. The 6'4", wildly popular Australian golfer has been through more than 30 coaches, psychologists, hypnotists, nutritionists, healers, gurus, swing doctors and spiritualists. None have helped.

Last month Baker-Finch said that he would stop playing tournament golf at least until 2000, which means he won't play when the British Open returns to Royal Birkdale this July.

No problem. He's already planning his glorious comeback.

Dear Mr. Baker-Finch,
I am 70 years old, 5'5" and have arthritis everywhere except in the roof of my mouth. I haven't hit a golf ball in years, but I know I can nudge one out there close to 300 yards. And I know I can correct your swing in one minute.
KARL, New South Wales

What on earth happened to Ian Baker-Finch? How could a man go from the penthouse of golf to its crawl space in so short a time? How did Baker-Finch go from a professional whose only thought upon swinging was hole it to this quivering mass who stands over a tee shot and worries about missing the ball? "I don't think anybody in the history of the game has had the rise and fall that this guy has," says his former coach David Leadbetter. "It's a very sad story."

Truth is, we might not be telling this story at all if Baker-Finch had seen that magical weekend in Birkdale as everybody else saw it: a heaven-sent, drop-a-dime-in-a-gumball-machine-and-have-it-empty-out-for-you kind of weekend. Sure, Baker-Finch had won eight times on the Australasian tour, once in the U.S. and a couple of times in Japan, but to shoot a record 29 on Birkdale's front nine on Saturday, birdie five of the first seven holes on Sunday and go 64-66 in the world's biggest tournament? It was a glorious hiccup in the order of things, one of the year's feel-good events.

That isn't how Baker-Finch saw it. He saw it as a sign that he could be great. He thought that if he cranked it up a notch, he could do this stuff regularly. "After that," he says, "I felt I should contend in every major."

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