Badds: Living with that unwanted burden
More than a decade earlier there had been the same comparison -’The next Jack Nicklaus’.
It was a label quickly attached to Rory McIlroy when he captured the recent US Open at Congressional.
Aaron Baddeley has carried the legacy ever since playing an Australian Open practice round in the company of Gary Player.
However in capturing the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, once again we’ve been reminded that here is one of Australia’s best golfers never to have won a Major.
Despite overwhelming crowd support in favour of Fred Couples, and also chants of ‘Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!’ Baddeley prevailed to capture a third PGA Tour title.
It had been five years since he broke through to win the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head and four years since capturing the FBR Open or former Phoenix Open.
Well before capturing back-to-back Australian Open titles, the first as an amateur and then next as a rookie professional, huge expectation had been placed on the shoulders of Baddeley.
In 1997, and at age 15, he won the Victorian Open and also became the youngest player to make the cut in an Australasian Tour event.
A year later and Baddeley was a medallist at the US Junior Open and runner-up by a shot in at the Junior World Open in San Diego.
His parents, Ron and Jo-anne had to borrow $11,230 on their Visa card to finance the trip to the States.
Some months later, Baddeley qualified for the Australian Open but thought nothing of sending a fax to Greg Norman’s Great White Shark Enterprises office in Sydney asking to play a practice round alongside the double British Open champion.
“I always wanted to play against the best, and to beat the best,” Baddeley said at the time.
“So I thought if I could ask someone like Greg Norman a question or three or four or 10 or 20 questions, it would be a huge advantage for me to prepare for the future.”
Norman was so impressed he gave Baddeley his mobile number and said to call him whenever he felt the need for advice and guidance.
1999 Australian Open
In February 1999, organisers grouped Baddeley with Norman and legendary South African Gary Player for the opening two rounds of the Greg Norman Holden International at The Lakes in Sydney.
With Australian golf crying out for a successor to Norman, Player remarked: “The best young player I ever saw was Jack Nicklaus, and I think this young man, and I don’t say this lightly, has the ability Jack Nicklaus had at the same age.”
Despite such an accolade, Baddeley resisted the urge to turn pro, fearing facing the same fate that was happening to England’s rising star Justin Rose.
Rose won the ‘low amateur’ Medal at the 1998 British Open, turned pro with huge media interest a week later in Holland but then proceeded to miss more than a dozen cuts.
So with Player’s remarks tucked into his golf bag, Baddeley bided his time in the amateur ranks finishing second behind Jonathon Byrd in the Northeast Amateur at Rhode Island.
He also reached the semi-finals that same year in 1999 at the Western Amateur and secured third place behind Hunter Haas in the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club.
While in the States, Baddeley persisted with his urge to get close to the world’s top stars by enticing Phil Mickelson to arrange for him to play a practice round at Mickelson’s Grayhawk Golf Club.
The story goes Baddeley was successful in lifting $40 from Mickelson’s wallet. Though in his last event before heading home, and the one tournament Baddeley was looking to peak, he missed the cut in the US Amateur at Pebble Beach.
But awaiting ‘Badd’s’ upon return to his parents’ rural setting just outside Melbourne was a spot in the Australian Open at Royal Sydney.
And with the words from songs by 1999 ARIA winning Aussie rock band Taxi Ride ringing in his ears, Baddeley rode euphoria of emotion to captured the greatest prize in Australian golf – the Stonehaven Trophy.
Victory meant Baddeley having to turn down a $114,720 first prize cheque, but the youngster was rewarded in more ways than simply pocketing the cash.
He commented: “I knew I could win today. I played my best, and it was good enough to win.”
It was surprising also that soon after Baddeley should end up on stage with Taxi Ride at a Surfers Paradise gig.
There was also a Christmas gift of a surprise invitation to compete in the 2000 Masters, and the first occasion since 1975 the ‘green jacket’ brigade had afforded such an invitation.
As well, Baddeley received an invitation for the US Open at Pebble Beach where he had been disappointed months earlier.
In order to finance another journey to the States, his parents had to get another loan of nearly $20,000, and with his father forced to sell his Ultra Tune business.
Baddeley finally made the jump to the play-for-pay ranks in spectacular manner defying everyone but himself to retain his Australian Open title at Kingston Heath.
It was an historic first in Australian golf.
Success followed with boyhood hero and now close friend, Norman as the tournament host handing the Greg Norman Holden International Open trophy to Baddeley.
Northern Trust Win
Fast forward to March this year and Baddeley arrive at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles for the Northern Trust or former Nissan Open.
And it was not just the eucalyptus-lined fairways that offered some comfort as Riviera’s kikuyu grassed fairways had long been a happy hunting ground for Australian golfers.
In 1995, Steve Elkington captured the US PGA Championship in defeating Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie in a play-off.
Two years before Baddeley made his Riviera debut, close friend Robert Allenby won the 2001 Nissan Open defeating five others in a memorable play-off.
This year was the 10th straight year Baddeley added the Riviera event to his schedule and in all prior nine appearances he’d never once missed the cut.
“Winning at Riviera is special as I love, love going here,” he said.
“I’ve been on the Tour since ’03 and haven’t missed a year here yet, and I’m not planning on it. I just love coming to this course.
“I still remember one of my first tournaments when Steve Elkington won the US PGA against Colin Montgomerie in a playoff, so there are a lot of memories for me
“So to go there this year and win is even more amazing.”
But then it was one of the many eucalyptus trees that was nearly Baddeley’s undoing.
Baddeley ran-up a double bogey at the 12th hole on the final day after an errant drive ricocheted off a eucalyptus tree and into a bush.
He bounced straight back with a super birdie putt at 13 before a row with eucalyptus trees down the side of the 17th where Baddeley executed a laser-like 3-wood shot through a gap in the trees to get back to the fairway.
Baddeley knocked in the par putt to win the battle of the generations with the 29-year old father of two, posting a final day 69 and defeat Fijian Vijay Singh, who was to celebrate his 48th birthday two days later, by two shots.
The 51-year old Couples, who had taken the lead with three opening birdies but then bogeyed two of his closing three holes, signing for a 73 and slump to a tie for seventh as he sought to become the Tour’s oldest winning in more than 35 years.
“It’s definitely been a couple of long years, but it was worth every bit, and I really feel that the last couple years is actually what made it easier today just because of having to battle and having to grow into so much for a couple years, the character that was just built in me, I guess,” said Baddeley.
As Baddeley embraced his wife, Richelle and two young daughters there was another waiting his turn to shake the hand of the three-time PGA Tour champion.
Dale Lynch had given Baddeley his first golf lesson when he was just 13 years of age under the auspices of the VIS Training Program developed by Lynch and Steve Bann.
“I want to be the best player in the world, and I want to be on the US Tour when I’m 21,” Baddeley is reputed to have initially said to Lynch.
Baddeley added: “So what do I have to do?”
With Lynch’s help, Baddeley got his wish and found his way from the secondary Nationwide Tour to the PGA Tour and with full Tour membership some two months before his 22nd birthday.
After missing the prior two Heritage events, firstly in 2003 with an ankle injury and then in 2005 as he got married.
So one day after the occasion of the first anniversary of his marriage, Baddeley broke through to capture a first PGA Tour title.
As he does, he attended a church service early Sunday morning held on the 18th green and encouraged by missing out on contesting the Masters the week before, finally succeeded in become a PGA Tour winner.
Baddeley won a second PGA Tour event in early 2007 in capturing the FBR Open or Phoenix Open at Scottsdale.
The win put Baddeley inside the top-50 on the world rankings for the first time in his career but that ‘next Jack Nicklaus’ tag came back to haunt him in leading going into the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Baddeley finished with an 80 for a share of 13th place.
He had split with Lynch shortly after turning pro and instead opted for the David Leadbetter ‘Stack and Tilt’ coaching method, and it wasn’t till March 2009 abandoned the method to return to Lynch.
“It was like coming back home, getting back to Dale because it felt like I was becoming a kid again, and that’s what made it fun,” he said straight after his Riviera success.
“Dale and I have spent a lot of hours together, and at times it’s been frustrating, but we’re both working towards the same end product and we saw that today.
“So in getting back with Dale, I actually felt like I’ve made more progress than what the scores have actually shown to be honest.
“I felt like I could have played better earlier, just the scores weren’t on the board.
“But each time we’d make progress we’d take a step or two back.
“After you’d make the progress, go out on the course, play a tournament, something would pop up and you’d have to fix that.
“So just step by step, we just sort of put the pieces together, built the foundation, and it was great, like the product today was just being able to hit the shots really that I needed to hit.
And unlike more than a decade earlier, Baddeley on this occasion earned his Augusta invitation in the best manner possible.
Baddeley had waited over three years since his 2007 Australian Masters triumph to again taste victory and four years since last succeeding on the PGA Tour.
“When I won at Hilton Head in ’06, I was in the building stage with the ‘stack and tilt’ method, and then ’07 I had a good year after winning FBR,” he said.
“But I feel like my game is at a different level where I’m not trying to keep working on stuff.
“Nowadays I can spend more time with my Aaron Baddeley Junior Foundation, so I can go out there and play golf.”
And Baddeley will do so without the burden of expectation already placed on McIlroy’s shoulders.