He prodigy sleeps, his body ravaged by influenza, his spirit crushed from having missed his own party. Fifteen miles away the Australian Masters is being played, and here lies Aaron Baddeley, the 18-year-old amateur who rocked the golf world in November by staring down Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman to win the Australian Open. Dark, heavy curtains have been drawn, turning Baddeley's bedroom into a stifling cave. A fan whirs in the corner. A small television next to the bed lights Baddeley's face, giving it a ghostly pallor. It's not hard to imagine what dreams are invading Baddeley's fitful sleep. Flickering across the TV is an evening replay of the first round of the Masters.
The prodigy was supposed to be there, strolling the fairways of Huntingdale Golf Club with Sergio Garcia. Baddeley was so looking forward to this first summit of wunderkinds that he spent the three months leading up to the Masters taking private Spanish lessons, just so he could welcome El Ni�o in his native tongue. Instead Baddeley's father, Ron, did all the talking on this day at Huntingdale, as he read a melodramatic press release that began, "From the bedside of Aaron Baddeley." It announced Aaron's withdrawal, and under questioning by the disappointed Australian press, Ron conceded that his son was "shattered" by the turn of events.
So the prodigy sleeps. From the glow of the TV it is barely possible to make out the clutter in his room. On the wall opposite the bed is a rack of a dozen autographed golf balls, collected when Baddeley was a starry-eyed kid haunting the Aussie Masters. Above the bed are framed portraits of his idols—Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Nick Price—who have watched over him since age 12, when golf hit him like a virus. In the corner, behind a mountain of clothes, is a picture of a beaming Baddeley holding the Aussie Open trophy. It has not been deemed worthy of a place on the wall.
Eventually the prodigy will stumble out of bed, wearing nothing but colorful boxers. For now the rest of the Baddeleys go about their business at their ranch house on 10 pastoral acres in Wonga Park, a suburb of Melbourne so removed from city life that the roads have yellow caution signs emblazoned with the silhouette of a kangaroo. Emma, a pixie of 10 years, is busy tending to her palomino, Honey. Kate, 15 going on 25, is on the phone, as usual. Ron is stoking the coals on the barbecue while his wife. Jo-ann, pours the while wine and sets a lovely table on the back deck, the better to enjoy this brilliant February evening. Life hums along, the Masters be damned.
The prodigy sleeps. Superstardom will have to wait, at least for a little while.
Aaron Baddeley was introduced to golf by his grandmothers, the only people on either side of the family who played the game. A year later, at 13, he had his first lesson with Dale Lynch, head coach of the Victorian Institute of Sport, who was already teaching many of Australia's top young golfers. "I want to be the best player in the world, and I want to be on the U.S. Tour when I'm 21," Baddeley said, by way of hello. "What do I have to do?"
Thus began the golfing education of Aaron Baddeley. Though his physical talents are self-evident, what makes Baddeley's story unusual is that, with equal parts charm and determination, he has worked to build relationships with the greats in the game as if he were an ambitious undergrad trying to land a plum internship. If Baddeley continues his ascension, he will surely go down as the first golfer to have networked his way to the top.
To be sure, Baddeley was blessed with advantageous DNA, combining the analytical, mechanical bent of his father with the athleticism of his mother, a swimmer, tennis player and competitive javelin thrower in her day. Ron grew up a grease monkey in Australia, and in 1980 he and Jo-ann moved to Vermont so he could serve as chief mechanic on Bill Alsup's Indy car. Aaron was born across the border, in Lebanon, N.H., on March 17, 1981. Later that year Mario Andretti hired Ron as his crew chief, and the Baddeleys moved to Indianapolis. The hard-driving life with Andretti proved too intense for Ron's tastes, however, and the family returned to Australia in 1983, soon settling into a quiet existence in Wonga Park, with Ron opening his own auto shop, Ultra Tune.
At 14, Aaron won the club championship of the Croydon Golf Club and the next year was making star turns on larger stages. At the 1997 Victorian Open, Baddeley became the youngest player to make a cut in an Australasian tour event, a 15-year-old who had been playing the game all of three years. (That same year a 17-year-old Garcia won the Catalonian Open, and Tiger Woods, 21, set the Masters on its ear.) Baddeley made his first splash on these shores in July 1998, when he was medalist at the U.S. Junior and runner-up by a shot at the Junior World in San Diego. His parents borrowed $11,230 on their Visa card to finance the trip.
A few months later Aaron, who had qualified for the Australian Open, sent a fax to Norman's office requesting a practice round. Where does a virtually unknown 17-year-old get the temerity to ask the god of Australian golf for a blind date? "I've always known I wanted to play against the best, and to beat the best," says Baddeley. "I just knew if I could ask someone like Greg Norman a question or three or four or ten or twenty, it would be a huge advantage for me as I prepare for the future."