Aaron Baddeley’s driving the SUV in Scottsdale, on the way to pick up the “kiddos” from school. He has five of them incidentally, ranging from two to 10, so his life is not short of entertainment, even when he’s not playing golf.
The sound of the hubbub permeates through the phone. But he and his American wife Richelle have never even hired a nanny, proving that Baddeley’s wife of 13 years is quite something. “She’s unbelievable,’’ he says. “She’s a rock at home, keeps everyone in line, everything in order. She takes care of everybody. She’s incredible.’’
The eight-seater comes in handy for the family of Aaron and Richelle, daughters Jewell and Jolee and sons Jeremiah, Josiah and youngest Jaddex, who’s just turned two. The 12-seater in the driveway gets a run, too, because Richelle Baddeley has three sisters who all live in Scottsdale, all with families of their own. “Including our kids, there are 13 nieces and nephews within 20 minutes of each other,’’ he says. “After church, or after a baseball game or a soccer game, we pile in and come up for lunch.’’
In the week that we track him down, he’s not playing the US PGA Tour tournament for dual reasons: first, his back has been stiff and he wants it right and second, his eldest daughter Jewell has a solo to play at a piano recital in Scottsdale, and he wants to witness the occasion.
Second daughter Jolee’s more into dancing and has her own solo performance soon; the boys are into sports, like baseball and often, a few chips at the short-game area in the Baddeleys’ backyard in Arizona. “The balance is trying to play as much as you can and also be at home as much as you can,’’ he says. “I try not to miss out on stuff at home and be here.’’
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He’s never lost his Australian touch, although he is a dual citizen and was born in America, where his father Ron was working as a Formula One crew chief before the family moved to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne when Aaron was two. For instance, he was happy to chat about Gary Ablett Junior’s recent reprieves at the AFL tribunal. He has always been a Geelong supporter, and knows Ablett personally. “I reckon I follow the footy more closely than some Aussies still living in Australia,’’ he says. “I’m always on the app, watching the highlights.”
He’s even retained his accent, a mere hint of the American twang having infiltrated his speech in 20 years. “Thankfully, I’m hanging on to that!’’ he says.
Twenty years? Can it be that long since a pimply-faced boy from Wonga Park stunned the golfing world in winning the 1999 Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur at Royal Sydney, then backed it up with another as a professional in 2000 at Kingston Heath before heading to America to (theoretically, at least) become the world’s best player?
He’s still working on that, even though the more cynical have written him off at 38. At the end of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season he lost his full playing rights, finishing 132nd on the points table, seven spots outside of where he needed to be. But with only provisional rights to peg it up in certain tournaments, he has quickly moved back into stride.
At the Safeway Open in the Napa Valley in October, the first tournament of the wrap-around 2018-19 season, he Monday qualified and promptly finished tied-fourth. At the Puerto Rico Open in February, he led into the last round and ultimately finished second, and at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic in March, he was tied-seventh.
The upshot is that by April he had earned $US800,000 in prizemoney and just as importantly, picked up enough Fedex Cup points to know that barring a disaster, he will have full playing rights again for the 2019-20 season. This is quite a comeback; hardly the performance of a player on his last legs.
What happened? In his own words, the putter saved him. Baddeley is renowned as one of the world’s best with the short stick, but by his standards he was miserable in 2017 and 2018 on the greens, 89th and 128th on tour in the most accurate number to disclose it – strokes gained from putting. For a player who is routinely in the top 10 (nine times in the 15 years that the statistics have been calculated, including No.1 in 2015 and No.2 in 2014) this was a disaster. His famed putting had abandoned him.
His explanation is simple. He had an equipment deal with Ping which required him to use their putters, and while the money was good and he loved the irons and woods, he needed another putter. Which is why when he almost won Puerto Rico this year, he had no endorsements on his cap or shirt, a rarity in this age. He deployed an old-school Odyssey No. 7 putter, he’s been using it ever since and he’s back inside the top 20 on the putting stats.
The Ping irons and woods are still there, but not the old putter. “I wanted to make sure that I had the flexibility with the putter to use what I wanted,’’ he says. “That’s why I didn’t sign any deals. I’m still using Ping equipment and a Vokey wedge; I just changed the putter. I mean, I feel like with equipment companies, unless they’re paying you life-changing money, it’s not worth it.’’
Perhaps the most significant change for Baddeley has been a period without a coach. For a player known for tinkering with his swing — and who has worked through a cluster of coaches from Dale Lynch to David Leadbetter to Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett’s controversial Stack and Tilt method, to Scott Hamilton to Adam Scott’s brother-in-law Brad Malone last year – the Victorian’s conscious decision to go it alone is interesting.
It’s a plan that would warm the heart of the late Peter Thomson, who always thought professional players leaned too heavily on coaches when they were better-served to solve their own issues. Baddeley says that Hamilton helped him when he was “lost” in his swing, and that Malone, his most recent coach, “gave me the keys that I needed to work on with my swing, and from there, just being myself, I’m working on those keys’’.
But the irony is that it is working nicely for him and he feels that he is “owning” his swing again. “It’s really quite simple compared with what it used to be,” he says. “Right now, I’ve got those keys that I work on, and I can understand why the Justin Thomases, the Justin Roses, the Jason Days can play good all the time or often, or go out and shoot one-over one day and then shoot six-under the next day. Because they just work on the same things.
“It’s not like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel the next day. It’s like: ‘Hey, I know what I’m doing. I’ve just got to go out and do it. There was one little thing off on a particular day. It’s one 15-minute session and you’re back hitting it good’. That’s what it’s like for me.”
He does not even practise as hard as he used to; doesn’t feel the need. “I’m working hard but I don’t need to put in 10-hour days,’’ he says. “That’s not what’s required. It’s more some practice hours and then some games with friends for money where you have to hit the shot or make the up-and-down or make the putt to win the hole or the match or whatever it is. That’s where I’m at right now. It’s more like that rather than trying to find a game or build a game. The game’s built. It’s a matter of keeping it sharp.”
Baddeley was a wunderkind from the time he won the Croydon club championship at 14 but the graph did not always head north, needless to say. It rarely does, and he points to Jordan Spieth, the former world No. 1 who slid outside the top 30 in the early part of 2019, as an example similar to his own. “He (Spieth) did some stuff that – I think he said — he didn’t realise that he did. It was just done naturally and now he’s had to learn why he did that and how he did that. I think if only I had the experience that I have now, if I had the knowledge that I have now when I was 22 years old, how different that would be. But the only way you get experience is to have the experience. You can’t read a book or have someone explain to you experience.”
While he has not met the incredibly high expectations that were held for him, he has hardly been a failure. If he stopped playing tomorrow he’d go down as one of our best-ever players. He’s won four times on the main tour along with two national championships, stayed on tour for two decades, accumulated $US21 million in prizemoney.
And in any case, he sees it as very much a work in progress. He has set a target of making the International team at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in December, and he embraces the future.
“I definitely believe that my best golf’s in front of me,’’ he says. “There’s not even a question about it, the best is yet to come. The reason I can say that is that I have an understanding of my whole game. It’s at a level that it’s never been before. It’s the simplicity of it. I’m able to take breaks, not touch a club, and I come back and it’s not like I’m experimenting. I’m not experimenting with anything, in the sense of ‘let’s try this’ or ‘let’s try that, it could work’. No, I’ve got my blueprint, I know what works, and I just go and do some work on that blueprint.’’
It's a view that will be seen in some quarters as optimistic. But let’s hope he’s right.
First published in Golf Victoria magazine