When you shoot 63, as Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, 21, did today in the opening round of The Open Championship at St. Andrews, experts trip over themselves waxing about your potential. Everyone was quite happy to point out that McIlroy shot three times his age. But, be forewarned Rory, golf is more fickle than any other sport. The stark reminder comes when looking at the first-round Open Championship leaderboard. Two-time major champion John Daly shot an opening-round 66. Great for John. And Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open Champion, is nowhere to be found. That’s because he’s not in the field. And that’s one of the saddest stories in golf.
Ian Baker-Finch, 49, is one of the nicest, most genuine men I have ever met. We worked together in Lethbridge, Alberta in June 1992. That was just eleven months after an exhausted Baker-Finch fought his way up the dusty 72nd fairway at Royal Birkdale. Ian, born in Australia, opened that tournament 71-71. He was +2 after 36 holes. Then “Finchy” scorched the weekend in 64-66 (eagle, 12 birdies, just four bogeys). That kind of scoring will win you some majors. But not for Ian Baker-Finch. That was his end. His game simply abandoned him.
Just a month after Baker-Finch’s victory, John Daly exploded onto the scene, with an insane victory at the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. Working with Nick Price’s usual caddy, Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, Daly went 69-67-69-71 and welcomed himself to the PGA TOUR like no one has before or since. Daly won another major – The 1995 Open Championship at St. Andrews – when he defeated Costantino Rocca in a playoff. Then J.D.’s lifestyle caught up with him. His problems with alcohol are well documented. If you saw any episodes of “Being John Daly” on The Golf Channel, you saw that Daly struggles daily with both his game and personal demons. It’s great to see him go low at St. Andrews.
In scorching-hot Lethbridge, at a made-for-TV event called the Paradise Canyon Classic, Ian Baker-Finch was competing against several other former PGA TOUR luminaries. Craig Stadler was there. Crusty, ornery, had no time for anyone. Canadian Dave Barr was there. Friendly enough, but always seemed a tad annoyed with our presence. Ian Baker-Finch was wonderful. He took all the time we needed with him on the range. He shot several on-camera instructional segments. He did an extended, sit-down interview with me about his life in golf. And all this came on a day when the United States Open was being played at Pebble Beach. Baker-Finch should have been there, but his tournament game had already begun to unravel. It came that fast.
“You know those laminated woods?” Baker-Finch would say in later years. “I always make the analogy that confidence is like those layers. You keep chipping away at it. You play poorly, another layer is gone. And when you’re on that negative spiral, it’s hard to put another layer back because there’s no glue left.” Baker-Finch’s most horrific moment came when he fired an opening-round 92 at the 1997 Open Championship. He cried in the locker room – then quit competitive golf.
Ian Baker-Finch was only 31 when his livelihood began to betray him. He became a commentator on ABC’s golf telecasts. He now does the same on CBS. But I never, ever see Ian Baker-Finch without thinking about his struggles in golf. Ditto John Daly.
So enjoy it while it’s there, Rory McIlroy. Golf can be a wonderful friend…or your worst nightmare.