Winning golf tournaments isn’t easy, especially when they are big championships likely to define a career. “I won a few,” the Scottish Ryder Cup player Ken Brown once told me. “But I lost hundreds of them.”
Hundreds is an exaggeration, but you take his point.
Ian Baker-Finch’s career was, of course, defined by The Open he won at Royal Birkdale in 1991 but half a dozen years earlier he endured a haunting loss at Metropolitan in the Australian Open.
He had played the best golf of the contenders when he came to the 70th tee with the championship seemingly in his pocket.
Metropolitan’s 16th is a short par-four turning around a nest of five or six bunkers on the corner, but only two of them are of any relevance. You can’t be in either and play with any certainty to the green, especially when you’re nervous, because the contact needs to be so precise.
In 1979, Bob Shearer birdied all the way from the 11th to the 16th tee, then drove into the corner bunker precipitating a three-bogey finish and missing a playoff with Jack Newton by two shots. More famously, Greg Norman had his own nightmare to finish in 1979 when, after two beautiful shots into the final green, he three putted from 12m to hand Newton his Open.
So in 1986, Baker-Finch took a 3-wood off the 16th tee and it was what players know as a “shot to nothing”.
A 3-wood couldn’t carry the sand (only a driver would back then) and if the plan is to play safe, play safe with a 3-iron and eliminate any chance of pushing it into the bunker.
Baker-Finch faded his 3-wood into Shearer’s bunker and made five just after the man ahead, Rodger Davis, hit the pin on the 17th with an extraordinary 5-iron. Three there and four at the last left the man in the plus-two’s with a chance – and a wait for the elegant Queenslander.
Baker-Finch drove just left of the ideal line from the 17th tee and caught the bunker Davis had only barely missed. With no chance to reach the green, he pitched out and then wedged poorly to 8m. One of the best putters in the world, he stunningly took three more to hole out and a par at the last left Davis with the trophy, the winner by a single shot.
The 16th isn’t the best short par-four on the Sandbelt, but it comes at the perfect time in the round and it extracted unexpected errors from two of our best ever players and cost both their chance of winning. For Shearer, in 1982 against Jack Nicklaus, there would be another day, but for Baker-Finch it was as close as he came to winning the Stonehaven Cup.
The 1991 Open at Royal Melbourne was another of some importance and remembered as much for the winner as the second-placed teenager, Robert Allenby.
Royal Melbourne is always a test of nerve because the greens are so scary when the pressure is ramped up and almost 30 years ago the course played quite differently than it does now in this age of once unimaginable power.
Allenby was 20 and after a pedestrian couple of days to begin, he played a fantastic weekend and came to the 18th hole with a chance to be the first amateur to win since another tall, “skin and bones man”, Bruce Devlin in 1960.
Hitting the ball close to the flag at Royal Melbourne is difficult – much more so than much of the professional golf we watch from week to week in which, as a general rule, greens are much softer than the feared Melbourne surfaces.
Plus there is the seemingly ever-present wind off the bay to add to the complications. You have to hit the right flight, land the ball in the right place and feed it to the hole on greens where it’s often difficult to get 10m putts anywhere near the cup. Either way, the kid pulled a 5-iron and hit it so close to the hole he could have almost kicked the putt in.
We assumed Allenby would be the champion, but coming behind was Wayne Riley showing off some uncommon determination mixed with some outrageous putting. He made a longish putt for a two at the great, uphill 16th, then holed another putt he could have reasonably expected to hole maybe one in 10-15 tries at the 17th to leave himself needing a three at the difficult 18th to beat Allenby.
Riley’s mid-iron second finished 12m left of the hole. Putting up the tier, three putts was more likely than one. But anchoring his flavour-of-the-month mid-sized putter to his chest, he rolled his ball perfectly across one of the scariest greens in the country and into the hole.
We all know golf is an odd game and there are times when players are inspired beyond what we would consider normal in times of great stress. It works both ways, of course, and for every Riley moment of outrageous fortune and skill, there is a player paralysed by the moment. (See Doug Sanders in the 1970 Open at St Andrews.)
Geoff Ogilvy has lost a couple of Opens at Royal Sydney. In 2016 he looked a likely winner in the middle of the 15th fairway, but he missed the green with a 6-iron and made a bogey. It wasn’t a killer mistake, but flaring a relatively easy tee shot off the 16th tee into the roots of the paper-barks lining the fairway was. Because sevens on par fives at the end of a championship never lead to anything good.
A decade earlier, he came to the 17th tee as the reigning US Open champion and looked a sure winner until John Senden put on perhaps the best ever finish to an Australian Open.
The 17th isn’t a par three of any great merit, but it’s difficult and demanding of a great long iron. (For any Royal Sydney members offended at reading this, your new Gil Hanse designed hole is sure to be one of the best long one-shotters in the country).
With the pin cut in the back right corner of the green, Senden sent out one of his famed pin-seeking straight-faced irons and with the aid of a fortuitous bounce off the slope of a greenside bunker he finished up with a tap-in for a two. Tied with Ogilvy now, he played safely down the dog-leg left 18th and with a short iron he hit another great approach with a few feet of the hole.
Playing the 18th, Ogilvy was informed of Senden’s, birdie-birdie finish and could only respond with an incredulous, “He did what!?”.
As long as there is an Australian Open, it will be the most important championship in the country and men will continue to win and lose them in equal measure and have to deal with the memories. Those who lose are left to ponder what might have been; but we all know every shot in golf makes somebody happy.
It’s cruel at times and it’s most definitely not fair. But dealing with what golf throws at us, no matter how well or poorly we play, is why it’s the best game of them all.
The Emirates Australian Open is supported by the NSW Government via its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.
The tournament, hosted by The Australian for a record 21st time, will be telecast exclusively live across the screens of Channel 7 and 7Plus from midday (AEDT) each day.
The Emirates Australian Open is a flagship tournament on the ISPS Handa PGA Tour of Australasia. The winner will receive a minimum of 32 Official World Golf Ranking points.
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