Ian Baker-Finch at 58
In 1998, Ian Baker-Finch stood on the first tee box at Royal Birkdale and looked on aghast.
With thick rough to the right and an out of bounds menacingly close, he could not help but wonder how he tamed one of The Open’s great courses in such style seven years previously.
That Sunday in 1991, a front-nine 29 was the backbone of one of the great Open rounds and carried the Australian to his solitary major from Mike Harwood by two shots.
“I said, ‘Have they changed the tee here? Is this different from the way it was in '91?’ And I played, and I thought, ‘How the hell did I shoot 29’?” he said.
Many thought the same - not because they doubted Baker-Finch’s ability but because it is so rare that rounds like that are produced on Open Sunday. When it happens, jaws drop.
Baker-Finch did not just conquer Royal Birkdale that day, he blitzed it – with five birdies in his first seven holes seeing him surge ahead and become Champion Golfer of the Year.
It’s a round that is still spoken about.
Baker-Finch grew up on a farm outside Brisbane on Australia’s eastern coast and golf was always a feature in his life.
His father helped build a local course and Baker-Finch first started to swing a club in earnest aged 12.
Jack Nicklaus’ book ‘Golf my Way’ was his greatest influence and his burning ambition to make it in golf saw him move 120 miles from home to earn $40 a week as an assistant golf pro aged just 15.
He turned professional in 1979 but it took him four years until he finally made a major breakthrough, winning the 1983 New Zealand Open in Auckland.
He then became a consistent performer on the PGA Tour of Australasia, claiming the Western Australia Open in 1984 and the Queensland PGA Championship a year later.
Baker-Finch will always be synonymous with Royal Birkdale and his achievement in 1991 but it is easy to overlook the fact that he so easily could have been a three-time Champion Golfer of the Year.
Unforgettable. pic.twitter.com/Z8x3iNHKV3— The Open (@TheOpen) October 23, 2018
Links courses always favoured his style, and his debut at St Andrews in 1984 is a case in point. Few players have led The Open outright after their first two rounds but that is what Baker-Finch did.
He opened with a 68 and backed it up with a 66 to take a three-shot lead into the weekend but that was quickly wiped out by Tom Watson, while superstars Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer circled menacingly.
A superb Sunday was in store but Baker-Finch fell away, with a closing round of 79 relegating him to a tie for ninth. He may not have been ready to win but it was clear he had the talent required to become Champion Golfer.
The only surprise is, perhaps, that it took so long to happen. Baker-Finch missed three successive cuts between 1986 and 1988 but he was still among the contenders. In 1990, he put together another strong run but eventually faded to sixth.
1991 looked like being another disappointing year when he started with two scores of 71 but in the third round he took complete control – firing a divine 64 to take a one-shot lead.
Harwood, Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara all challenged but Baker-Finch’s masterful front nine effectively had it sewn up. He completed a 66 to win the title.
"The Open Championship is the most special event of the year in golf," Baker-Finch said.
"Just to play in it is a thrill, and to win it is a dream. I was in a dream world when I was presented with that famous Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale."
Unfortunately for Baker-Finch, his form dipped after lifting the Claret Jug. He made the cut at The Open just twice after winning, while he missed 32 successive cuts on the PGA Tour between 1994 and 1997.
After struggling at Royal Troon in 1997, Baker-Finch decided against playing at The Open the following year.
He retired from competitive action in 2001 and moved straight into the commentary booth – where he has proven a major success.
But, for those who were there and watched it on TV, Baker-Finch will always be remembered for that Sunday at Royal Birkdale.