12 Jun 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

Great Australian Moments 14: IBF's Birkdale masterclass

by Martin Blake

Baker-Finch 1991 Open image
Ian Baker-Finch soaks in the adulation at Royal Birkdale in 1991. Photo: Getty

Only four Australian men have won the Open Championship of Great Britain, the oldest tournament in the world. Peter Thomson won five, a champion of the links, while Kel Nagle won the centenary Open and Greg Norman won two.

The fourth is Queenslander Ian Baker-Finch, who etched his name along that group with immense pride in 1991 – the pinnacle of his golfing life.

Baker-Finch’s win at Royal Birkdale in England was redemptive, and emphatic to say the least. He produced an astonishing standard of ball-striking and putting with a 64-66 weekend that equalled Tom Watson’s Open record of 130.

His front nine on Sunday, playing in the final group with five-time winner Watson, was out of this world. He turned in 29 having birdied five of the first seven holes, at which point he was five ahead. Glancing at a leaderboard, he noted to himself: “You better not stuff it up from here. They won’t let you back in the country.’’

Athletes talk about being in the zone and here was Baker-Finch at his best. "I could see a white line on the ground all the way to the hole and I just hit along it,’’ he told Mike Clayton, who related the conversation in Clayton’s book ‘Golf From The Inside’.

At the par-four 16th, after another lasered four iron to the green that almost knocked the stick out, Baker-Finch knew he was close to the finish line. “Did ya like that one Petey?’’ he said to caddie Pete Bender, who’d carried Greg Norman’s bag when he won in 1986. Bender replied: “Love it.”

A two putt birdie on the 17th gave him the cushion he needed; not even a bogey from the left rough at the 18th could deny him. Australia finished one-two, with Mike Harwood, also enjoying one of his best days, the runner-up.

The redemption factor was strong. Baker-Finch regarded the Open as “a world championship”, and he had been in the last group twice before. In 1984 at St Andrews when he was just 23 and in his first appearance, he was overwhelmed by the moment, wedging into Swilcan Burn on his way to a 79 as Seve Ballesteros reeled everyone in. Then in 1990, he played alongside the relentless Nick Faldo in the last group and also went backwards.

These were failures that he addressed as he spoke at the presentation ceremony. “All the times I didn’t go on and win made me stronger,” he said. “Today erases all those memories. Just to play in The Open is fantastic, to win it is a dream.”

Even on his finest day, Baker-Finch behaved with a humility that is uncommon. His own self-deprecation likely became his biggest weakness as a professional player, and this would have its biggest impact later in his career, when he suffered the humiliation of losing his game. “I never really saw myself being on top,’’ he told Golf Australia’s Inside The Ropes. “I never saw myself being No. 1. I just wanted to be the best I could be.’’

But his win at Birkdale was no fluke. Baker-Finch won 17 times around the world, and was inside the world’s top 10 players in 1992, when he was runner-up in the Players Championship in Florida. He won an Australian Masters and an Australian PGA. He was regarded as close to the best putter on the planet, even years after his long game had disappeared.

His career stands up. It is just that the fall was so spectacular, epitomised by the snap-hooked tee shot out of bounds at St Andrews in 1995, and the first-round 92 at Royal Troon in 1997 that left him in tears in the clubhouse. Fortunately, he has set it aside and made a successful and enduring career as a television commentary, both in America and at home.

He deserves it, just as he earned the moment in 1998 when the Open went back to Birkdale sans the Australian, who had retired. A few days before the tournament, Baker-Finch went to the course and ceremonially walked the 18th with a Japanese television crew filming and producing a feature on his 1991 win.

Partway down the last hole, the club’s general manager had the sound of the 1991 television commentary played through the loudspeakers, so that if he closed his eyes, he could have transported himself back to that warm Lancashire afternoon eight years earlier, with the cheers and the adulation, and wife Jennie, cradling their infant daughter Hayley, greeting him behind the 18th.

Back to his greatest day.

The 1991 Open highlights

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