When do you think Ian Baker-finch figured he had the British Open won? When he had a five-shot lead on Sunday and the only people chasing him were an American late for traction, an Irishman with a flying elbow and an Australian with all the confidence of Gilligan? Or was it when he shot a little 29 on the front nine, and the contenders fell back as if he had sneakaroma? Or maybe it was when he came to the final hole needing only a double bogey to win, and there wasn't a lake in sight.
Sunday was Baker-Finch's day to win the British Open, and he did so by bludgeoning the tricky greens with his putter. The 30-year-old Aussie jammed five birdies into the first seven holes, went five shots up on the rest of the field in the first 70 minutes of the final round and turned the world's most famous golf tournament into the world's best-attended nature walk. The last day of the 120th British Open, played over the gorse and thistle and eerie dunes of Royal Birkdale—the Sea of Tranquillity Muni will look like this—in Southport, England, had all the tension and drama of watching hollandaise congeal.
You think Baker-Finch was happy? Somebody put down �150,000 ($247,500) on him at 50-1 odds with a London bookmaker before the week started. Even Baker-Finch said at the time, "He must know something I don't know." Seeing as how the unidentified wagerer is now $12,375,000 richer, maybe he did know something. Maybe he knew that Ian Baker-Birdiemaker was as hot coming into the Open as Pensacola pavement, having finished in the top 10 in six of his last nine tournaments. Maybe he knew that Baker-Finch is the newest guest star of Late Night with David Leadbetter, the absolute must-have teaching pro to the stars. Or maybe he knew that Baker-Finch wanted this one badly.
Twice Baker-Finch had been in the final Sunday pairing of a British Open, and twice he had "stuffed it," as the Aussies say for choking, losing by eight shots to Seve Ballesteros in 1984 and seven to Nick Faldo in '90. "Still have some scar tissue from those," he said ruefully last week.
But could he stuff a five-shot lead with 10 holes to play? Why not? Nothing else had made sense at Birkdale all week. Take, for instance, last Thursday, the day Ballesteros burst into the first-round lead with a wind-whipped 66, and a naked 16-year-old girl burst through the 1st fairway and put a bare-hug on Jos�-Mar�a Olaz�bal. It was recorded as the first time in British tabloid history that the news and the Page 3 girl were actually the same thing. Olaz�bal was never the same again. He finished 80th.
Nothing made much more sense the next day, when Ballesteros wore two hats in the chilling wind and rain. He wore a Jackie Stewart-type racing cap with a floppy blue fisherman-style hat over it. "Keeps my head warm," he said after shooting a 73 to fall a stroke off the lead through two rounds. Of course, if anybody else wore two hats they would look like Minnie Pearl. When Ballesteros wore two hats, he looked like a Latin Minnie Pearl.
Nevertheless, Mark Calcavecchia beat all on Friday, when, after shooting a 79 to miss the cut by two shots, he gave his clubs to a sand trap attendant as he walked off the course. In return, the sand trap attendant offered Calcavecchia his rake "considering the way he was playing."
After Friday's round, you could have sworn somebody had mistakenly listed the players who missed the cut on the leader board. Tied for the lead were Gary Hallberg of the U.S., Mike Harwood of Australia and Andy Oldcorn of England, three guys who wouldn't get autograph requests if they carried their clubs on Oxford Street. Nobody was trembling at the sight of that threesome at the top. Even Harwood wasn't impressed with himself. "Well, I'm not one of the great players in the world, I'm just a grinder," he said. "If nobody else wants to win it, and I'm still hanging around, well, maybe."
In fact, the first two days were so stirring that the crowds got huge. Not only outside the ropes, but inside them. So underwhelming was Harwood & Co.'s two-under 138 that 113 players made the cut instead of the usual 70 or so, owing to a new rule that allowed all players within 10 shots of the lead the chance to play through the weekend. Each extra man who made the cut cost the Royal & Ancient an extra �3,000 ($4,950) in prize money. Looks like mushed peas for lunch again next year, Haversham.
The only thing left to happen Saturday was for one of the contenders to break his leg, so Britain's Richard Boxall did. He was only three shots off the lead when the tibia snapped in his left leg as he hit his tee shot on the 9th hole. His leg had hurt him most of the day, and when it finally went, a bystander said it sounded as if Boxall's club shaft had snapped. Some guys are just born to lose the Open.