LINKS LETTER, APRIL 2003

QUEST FOR THE REAL THING

By Jeff Hopper

Go right ahead and call him the dot com kid, if you’d like. You certainly won’t be the first. And his personal Web site will back you up.

Paint a picture of the 22-year-old Aaron Baddeley as one of the more savvy members of golf’s stunning youth set. Those plaid slacks he wore on Sunday of the Sony Open in Hawaii were stunning. The rose-colored shirt that he donned in Phoenix was closer to shocking.

He’s had a manager he has called a friend since he was an amateur. He has chosen golf’s trendy Scottsdale—don’t all the pros live in Scottsdale or Orlando?—as his American home. He listens to Creed almost incessantly, and probably more than a little of the lyric “Don’t want to follow/Down roads been walked before” has rubbed off on him.

No doubt about it. Aaron Baddeley is modern.

But don’t ask him about his favorite video games. He doesn’t play them. On that stage, Baddeley will likely always be chasing Tiger.

In professional golf, that is what the game is all about these days. Chasing Tiger. When you’re talking about the young stars, especially. Baddeley is a young star.

He began younger than nearly any of them. Not in the Tiger view of things, where the roar was first heard on national TV at the age of three. But in the crush-the-big-names view of things when Baddeley claimed the Australian Open trophy right out of the eager hands of Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie in 1999 as an 18-year-old amateur. Tiger hadn’t won a professional event as an amateur. Among the young guns (which no longer includes 32-year-old Phil Mickelson) only Sergio Garcia had done the same. But not on such a stage, and not with the world’s No. 3 player breathing down his neck.

He can still recall every hole of that week, like a vivid war story, but without the blood. He made seven birdies on his front nine Thursday, going out in 29. Welcome, Mr. Baddeley. The leader board is yours.

Baddeley continued his solid play right into the back nine on Sunday. Montgomerie made birdie at 12, slicing the lead to two, but Baddeley responded with a birdie of his own at 13 and held his three-shot lead by making birdie at 16.

“I was cruising after that,” Baddeley recalls. “I was surprisingly comfortable being in that position for the first time, but I knew that I had to play well. It wasn’t like I was cruising in La La Land.”

On the 18th tee, there was no question that the tournament was his to win. Still, his first thought was Don’t hit it left! He asked himself, “Where do I want to hit it? At the Holden sign.” He hit a 2-iron at the Holden sign. “Just smashed it,” he said. When he hit a 9-iron to the green, he knew what he had done, that he was going to win.

Two putts and he had done it. Perhaps there has been no more surprising win in golf in the past decade.

Baddeley says that Australian golf legend Jack Newton summed up the victory best. “We all hoped that an 18-year-old kid could win,” Baddeley paraphrased Newton. “We all thought that he might not be able to do it. But playing against the No. 3 player in the world, he did.”

But as unexpected as Baddeley’s win were the words of his speech. In Australia, it is typical for the winner to formally address the crowd in the victor’s ceremony. At the Australian Open, a band plays, accompanying a procession of the suited representatives of the Australian Golf Union. The winner, as well as the second and third place finishers, sits up front.

“My friend, Paul Galli, gave me a piece of paper with some notes on it about who I should thank. It didn’t have ‘I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior’ up top, so I put that in first, and that was the first thing I said,” Baddeley says of the speech.

And in repeating it, he confirms that in spite of all the success and attention that have ensued—he won the Australian Open again in 2000, as a 19-year-old professional, then made waves by narrowly missing the winner’s check against Ernie Els in Hawaii to start this season—Baddeley holds on to one big issue in his life. Unabashedly, he believes—and he tells the world he believes—in Jesus Christ.

The unabashed part is pure Baddeley. But of all the hip things a handsome, young athlete might say, “I follow Christ” isn’t usually one of them.

That’s where all the labels aimed at Baddeley start missing their mark. Dot com kid, outspoken, self-promoting—they just don’t apply much of the time.

Baddeley’s golf hero, understandably, is Woods. And he sees Woods as not untouchable. “It’s amazing what he’s done, but he’s human, and if he can do it, someone else can,” Baddeley says, showing that call-’em-like-you see-’em side.

But he is just as happy to move off of golf and speak gratefully of his parents. When Aaron was born in New Hampshire on March 17, 1981, he was the first child of Ron and Jo-Ann Baddeley, both Australian. His father was chief mechanic for Indy racing’s Mario Andretti.

When Aaron was two, his parents moved back to their homeland, and two sisters were born, Kate and Emma. In a nation where only ten percent of the people follow Christ, the Baddeleys were among them, raising their children in church. At 12, Aaron committed his life to Christ. At 15, he was baptized.

Even at that age, he was certain Christ had taken hold of his life.

“I just knew,” he says. “You just know from what you feel and the decisions that you make and how you feel on certain topics, situations, things that your mates will do who aren’t Christians—just little things, like not swearing. Things that are small do stand out to some people. You get questions, ‘Why don’t you swear?,’ or ‘Why don’t you do this?’ You tell them the reason why is because you’re a Christian.”

Not that Christians are immune from what the world around them offers. And to a soaring professional athlete, the world can offer quite a bit.

“You’re young, you’ve got money, so it’s very easy to get caught up in getting things and collecting things and whatnot,” Baddeley admits.

And there are other attractions. “Females are definitely something (that draws your attention) because being in the position that you’re in, a lot of females would like to be a part of that. You do get a lot of attention there.”

So, is a devout young man forced to run for cover? To hide from every allurement?

Baddeley chooses another defense. He looks to surround himself with strong friends. “I’ve got guys I talk to,” he says, and he identifies a friend in ministry, a pastor in Australia, friends at his church in Scottsdale. “They’re huge, they’re fantastic. With their help and their counsel, it’s definitely making it a lot easier. And then having a strong relationship with God, spending time with Him daily and being in the Word (the Bible) as much as possible.”

And then there was the vow.

Midway through last season, Baddeley decided to step away from dating for a time. He wasn’t liking what he was seeing in the dates he was choosing or in himself.

“I couldn’t go out on a one-on-one date with any girl for six months.” He says it like it was a discipline foisted on him by on outside force. But it was a decision he made for himself, and he is glad he made it.

“I spent the time with Him (God), pressing my relationship with Him instead of worrying about dating a girl or something like that. I learned a lot about relationships, about how to treat a woman, how a guy’s got to take charge, the art of attraction, the art of conflict, the art of marriage, the art of intimacy—little things that I didn’t know prior to doing the vow. I wouldn’t change that. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done, because the amount that I learned was just awesome.”

When that right girl does come along, then, she will need to know this about Baddeley: he reads voraciously. When he says he learned something, he generally means he read it in a book somewhere, or heard it on a tape.

But how will Baddeley himself know when the right one comes along? He’ll go back to God and back to those friends.

“I’ll know by close friends, close Christian friends, they’ll say she’s good. I’ll know by confirmation in the Spirit, by praying. It’s a tough decision, but the more you pray through it and pray about it, the easier the decision will become because the easier it is for you to hear what He is saying.”

Two things have held since the beginning: his faith and his drive. Despite success as a young cricketer in Australia, Baddeley moved to golf when he was 12. His parents asked him repeatedly if he was sure of his decision, because he had accomplished much in cricket and nothing in golf. But once the choice was made, Baddeley went from a 23 handicap to a 6 in one year. He ate and drank and slept golf so much that first year that his parents had to slow him down.

“I was playing too much,” Baddeley says now. “So on Mondays, I couldn’t touch a club, I couldn’t watch golf, I couldn’t read golf, I couldn’t talk about golf. I couldn’t do anything on Mondays on golf. They saw I could get burned out. I wasn’t too sure about it back then, but today I love taking a day off.”

Still, his compulsion to join the world’s elite players continued to push him. And that push brought him to America, where he knew the world’s best players made their Tour home.

Others, including Justin Rose and fellow Aussie Adam Scott, chose Europe instead, but Baddeley pronounced what he wanted—a PGA Tour card—and he pursued it. The non-exempt route that worked for Woods and Charles Howell III didn’t pan out for Baddeley, so he took aim at the 2002 Buy.com Tour (now the Nationwide Tour). Finish in the season’s top 15, Baddeley knew, and he would have what he wanted.

It took him a bit to get going—ironically, he missed the cut at both Buy.com events held in Australia to start the season. But the next week he was in Arkansas, capturing third place. He never won in 2002, but three times he finished second, including twice in the season’s final four weeks, when he also had a fourth at the Hibernia Southern Open and a 13th at the Buy.com Tour Championship. It was just the charge he was looking for, with just the result he had dreamed of.

Aaron Baddeley was headed to the PGA Tour as a fully exempt member. And it took him very little time to nearly insure himself a return trip for 2004.

The 2003 season’s first full-field tournament was a longstanding event—the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. Baddeley opened with 66, leaving him one back of Chris DiMarco and Chris Riley. But when he carded a 64 on Friday, he had taken a one-shot lead over DiMarco and Els. A 65 on Saturday extended that lead to two over Els.

It was Baddeley’s to win on Sunday.

And in spite lacking, by his own admission, “my A-game,” Baddeley knocked in a 12-footer on the 72nd hole to shoot 69 and tie Els, who had fired a 67.

“I never thought I had it won,” Baddeley said, “but I thought I had a good chance in the playoff when I holed that putt to tie Ernie.”

Baddeley was forced to hole a second birdie putt on the first playoff hole, this time from six feet.

Baddeley and the man who had advanced to the world’s No. 2 by winning the week before moved to their second playoff hole, the tenth. Els drove the ball into trouble, and Baddeley safely hit the green, with 20 feet for birdie. Els hit a superb recovery, but he was still left with 43 feet to the hole. He made it.

Baddeley went from offense to defense in a moment’s time. He had to make his putt to extend the playoff. His stroke was dead on, and so was the roll of the putt, but it lost momentum in front of the hole and came to rest a quarter-inch short. Els had won.

“I’m disappointed because I had a chance to win,” Baddeley said afterward. “But I’m happy because I made Ernie work for it.”

That work was not a fact lost on Els. The South African praised Baddeley up and down when he spoke to the press. “I thought the kid was going to go away,” Els said. “Unlucky for Aaron, but he’s going to win a lot of titles.”

If Baddeley wasn’t confident before receiving adulation from Els, he had every right to be. And he could certainly have gone into that self-promoting mode that some suggest is his wont, often only because his cap and bag point to that Web site, badds.com.

But Baddeley confounds again. Confident, yes. Goal-oriented, yes. Eager, yes. But balanced in his faith.

“Right now, all I’m doing, obviously I’m planning and setting goals, but I’m just trusting in His plans.” It is a humility uncommon in young men. But it comes from knowing that everything is not in his hands.

“I’ve got my goals and where I want to go. I’m working hard at those and I’m going to keep working hard at those. On the other hand, if I miss a cut or I get beat in a playoff by Ernie Els, I’m going to be disappointed, but that’s not the end of the world because I know He’s got bigger and better plans.

“That’s not something that has come easy, and it still doesn’t come easy, but it’s something that I’m always working on, just to trust Him.”

If you think it sounds like a creed, this faith of Baddeley’s, you’re probably right. Of course, if it sounds like Creed, that favorite band, you may be more right still:

I hear a thunder in the distance
See a vision of a cross
I feel the pain that was given
On that sad day of loss
A lion roars in the darkness
Only he holds the key
A light to free me from my burden
And grant me life eternally

COPYRIGHT 2003 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Aaron Baddeley

    4 PGA Tour Wins: 2006 Verizon Heritage, 2007 FBR Open, 2011 Northern Trust Open, 2016 Barbasol Championship

    4 International Wins: 1999 Holden Australian Open, 2000 Holden Australian Open, 2001 Holden Greg Norman International, 2007 MasterCard Australian Masters