21 May 2020 | Men's Australian Open | Feature stories |
Great Australian Moments 8: Baddeley's ascent
by Martin Blake
Three weeks after he completed his year 12 exams, Aaron Baddeley went and won an Australian Open.
It is almost unthinkable that an 18-year-old from Wonga Park in the outer north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne could beat home the likes of the great Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, the Scotsman who at the time was ranked No. 3 in the world, not to mention Englishman Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion.
But that’s what Baddeley did at Royal Sydney in November, 1999.
Nobody saw it coming other than Baddeley, who’d told his father Ron a couple of months earlier that he thought he could win the tournament. He had enjoyed a good amateur career already, winning the Riversdale Cup in the same year and finishing runner-up (to Adam Scott) in a Greg Norman invitational tournament in Queensland, but this was next-level to say the least.
He became the first amateur since Bruce Devlin in 1960 to win the national Open, and only the second since Jim Ferrier in 1939. But in context, golf was a much different game in 1999 to what it was when Devlin and Ferrier took their Stonehaven Cups home.
Without denigrating Devlin’s Lake Karrinyup win, four of the top five in Perth were amateurs (Kel Nagle being the outlier). In the 1930s when Ferrier won, it was commonplace for amateurs to compete on equal terms with professionals. Witness Bobby Jones winning the original Grand Slam as an amateur, becoming one of the greatest of all time without ever turning professional.
The teenaged Baddeley had no free hit in 1999; he had to beat the best, but he never flinched.
In this particular week, he unveiled his magnificent putting to the world. It was astonishing. After a thorough look at the putt from both sides, the actual putting routine lasted just nine seconds, all counted down by Baddeley himself. It was quick, it was simple and everything, it seemed, went in.
The Victorian displayed the fearlessness of youth was evident from the time he opened with 67 on Thursday. He was seeming impervious to the pressure of leading on the Sunday, even when Norman made his run, the Shark holing a great birdie at the last to post 12-under, along with Nick O’Hern.
Baddeley was a bad shot or two away from giving it back, but he came to Royal Sydney’s wonderful dog-leg 18th with a two-shot buffer, and his two iron tee shot hit the fairway. An eight iron that stopped left of the flag and two putts later, he was the winner, having closed with a 69, and his parents – Ron and Jo-Ann – embraced him on the green.
Hindsight tells us quite a bit. Australia thought it had a true world-beater on its hands, and Baddeley himself was not about to hose down the excitement. He was asked if he wanted to emulate Tiger Woods, who was already the world’s best player. “My goal is to become better than Tiger," he said.
Norman was suitably impressed. "He has it all," said the Shark. "You can see it in his eyes."
Looking back now, some caution might have been well advised. When I interviewed Baddeley about those days a few years later, he had an adult’s perspective. “I didn’t realise how big a deal it was until it happened. Looking back, I guess it was a little hard to handle in the sense of being 18, just finishing high school, moving to America and away from home.
"It wasn’t like it was planned. I won the Australian Open and it was right on me. Even though that’s where I wanted to be and I wouldn’t change a thing, it was very quick.”
Baddeley never did match or overtake Tiger Woods. But he did win the Open again the following year, this time as a professional, and he has played on the US Tour since 2003, winning four times and earning more than $US20 million. He has fathered six children and lives in Arizona.
He has had a fine career by any standards, and it’s continuing to this day. But it’s just not the one that seemed to be possible on October 28, 1999. Then again, it’s a hard game. Brutal, actually.
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