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interview

The Dark Shark

Ian Baker-Finch, aka 'IBF' or the ‘Dark Shark’ as he was once referred to in his native Australia, has hit the half ton having celebrated his fiftieth birthday towards the end of last year. HK Golfer met up with the 1991 Open Champion following his Australian Senior Open debut to discuss his plans for 2011 – both on and off the course INTERVIEW BY PAUL PRENDERGAST PHOTOGRAPHY BY AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

T

he ‘Finchy’ we now know is the classy commentator for CBS Sports on the PGA Tour for 25 weeks of the year. Back in the Dark Shark days, he was busy making his mark on the international golf scene armed with a willowy swing and a short game and putting touch to die for. His tall, dark features and engaging personality also had female fans of all ages shooting more than furtive glances in his general direction. Sadly, Baker-Finch’s golf career which saw him garner 17 international victories on four separate tours, a top 10 world ranking and a brilliant victory in the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, is perhaps unfairly remembered for a prolonged form slump through the mid- to late-90s that saw a run of missed cuts and high scores. These demons ultimately lead to him stepping down from active play after a disastrous first round at the 1997 Open at Royal Troon. In the time that has elapsed, Baker-Finch has restored his love for the game and enough faith in his form to make an appearance on the PGA Tour as a former champion at the 2009 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, where a first round 68 demonstrated to all that the guy can still play Aside from this, his public appearances had been limited to occasions like The Masters Par 3 Tournament and a few pro-ams at the back end of each year on his return Down Under. All of that could change in 2011 as Baker-Finch's coming of age as a senior and a two-year exemption to the Champions Tour as a past major winner, provides him with the opportunity to show us all that ‘the guy can play’ more frequently. Who knows. If he can get the flat stick working as it did in his heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, it would be no surprise to see BakerFinch feature at the pointy end of some tournaments over the next few years on course setups that you’d have to think would be well suited to his game. The big ‘but’ is: will he have the time or the inclination to devote more of himself to his game to make more than just ceremonial appearances on tour between commentating commitments? The magical 50 mark can often mean the onset of a mid life crisis! A Ponytail, earring and a Harley Davidson: give me a timeframe on each? [Laughing] No, nothing like that. Nothing has changed, it’s just another birthday. 36

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Has time flown when you think about it? It really has. Looking back, I’ve been a TV announcer or analyst for about 14 years now and am about to sign on again with CBS. That’s longer than I was a touring professional. I love the work and it gives me a chance to stay in touch with the game and to travel. Looking back, you introduced yourself on the world stage at the 1984 Open, where Seve Ballesteros triumphed at St Andrews. You were paired with Tom Watson in the last group in the final round at the Home of Golf. That must have been a surreal experience at the time? It certainly was. It was that epic battle where Seve birdied the 18th and Watson bogeying 17 after hitting it against the wall over the green. I was leading after two rounds and paired with Watson in the final round. That event gave me the self belief that I could compete at an international level, proof that all the hard work was paying off. Of course, you had another brush with the Open in 1990 at St Andrews and you’ve been quoted as saying how much you learned about how to win from being paired with Nick Faldo in that event. He hardly spoke a word to you at all, a completely different relationship to the one you have with him now in the booth? Absolutely. I recall I didn’t putt particularly well in that event but Nick was completely in control that week and won easily in the end with a record score, I think. Nothing bothered him all week and it taught me a valuable lesson in how to focus on the job at hand, which helped me out the next year when I got another chance. HKGOLFER.COM


Baker-Finch made a rare tournament outing at the 2009 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, where he's a past winner. A first round 68 showed that on his day he can still compete with the young guns.

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compete but it’s so hard when you work 20-odd weeks in the US and three back at home. What are your thoughts about the Champions Tour this year – excited, nervous or both? I ’m a bit exc ite d but w it hout g re at expectations. I played in Perth [in the Australian Senior Open in October 2010] and didn’t drive the ball all that well but I think that was just a mental thing, because the course was so tight. In the final rounds, I ditched the driver and used a 3-wood off the tees and didn’t play too badly after that to finish in a tie for 15th. I’m looking forward to having some fun but I’m only playing a few events here and there. You’ve said you don’t have a strong desire to use this stage as a platform to prove a point to the public, your peers or even yourself. But surely being ‘low CBS announcer’ (over fellow commentators and Champions Tour players Bobby Clampett and Gary McCord) has to be a driving motivation... [Laughing] We have a lot of fun in the booth and play together as much as we can. There are a lot guys who are still good players commentating, Nick Faldo still plays well, Gary McCord has won on the Champions Tour, Roger Maltbie, Gary Koch, Peter Oosterhuis...

It’s 20 years this year since your Open win at Birkdale but I’ll bet it’s all as clear as yesterday? It is. I had played well for a long period of time so I felt comfortable leading into that week that if I played well, I’d be a chance. However, you have weeks like that all the time where you feel that way so doing it is a different story. I was very focused and jumped out of the box well, particularly in the final round. I set myself a target to stay ahead of the pack and got to the point where I could play safe for a bogey up the final hole. Any thoughts about making a return to the Open [Baker-Finch is exempt until aged 65 but has not played since 1997 at Royal St George's] this year? No, I’m not playing enough to kid myself that I can ‘be an athlete’ when I don’t play full-time. If I put my mind to it, I feel I could 38

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How’s your game? Not too bad but I made the choice a long time ago not to be an athlete, whereas the likes of a Peter Senior, for example, continued to play on through their 40s, kept fit and kept their games sharp. Guys like Kenny Perry, who was winning on the PGA Tour right up to turning 50, are so hard to beat. Bernhard Langer, Freddie Couples showed this year how good he continues to be. To compete with the young guys and the best of the seniors these days, you have to drive the ball long and straight whereas my game has always been about placement. That’s not to say that occasionally I can’t play well and compete though. I still love the game and love playing but I’m just not willing to stop doing everything else I’ve been doing for the last decade or more to pretend to be an athlete again. So I have no great expectations or a desire to have to prove myself. When do you plan to debut? I’m thinking I’ll play the Toshiba Classic in March and then I might have a look at some events on the European Senior Tour if the timing is OK. After that, I work for CBS virtually from the Masters in April through to September so there will be little chance of me playing again until October. I’ll come back to play the Aussie Senior Open too at the end of the year. HKGOLFER.COM


It’s a bit lonely for Aussies on the Champions Tour, just Pete Senior and you. Steve Elkington isn’t far away and Greg Norman always seems to be busy with other things. Are you sending a few of the other blokes – the likes of Mike Harwood, Peter Fowler and Wayne Grady – texts to tell them to get practicing? [Laughing] Yeah, Pete is our main guy now and I fully expect to see him win this year after such as good year in 2010. What he did at the end of the year at the Australian PGA [Senior won in a playoff from Geoff Ogilvy] was outstanding. The likes of Harwood, "Chook" Fowler and Mike Clayton play full-time on the European Tour. I’m not sure of the schedule there but it would be good to play a few events over there. It seems to be a bit more of a relaxed tour, like the old days.

Yes, it will be a strong team but then again, it’s always a strong team. I just hope the prospect of qualifying for the team doesn’t result in some of them putting too much pressure on themselves to perform in 2011. It might play on their minds, trying too hard to get in. Looking back this time next year, what’s your pass mark for your golf in 2011? That I’ve put myself in a relaxed enough frame of mind to go out and enjoy myself. If I can do that, I think I can perform well enough. What about the ponytail, earring and Harley? [Laughing] No, I’ll stay as I am!

Major player (clockwise from top left): IBF with fellow past Open winner Sam Sneed in the past champions curtainraiser event at the 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews; celebrating his 1991 Open success with daughter Hayley; with Peter Thomson and Greg Norman at the 1996 President's Cup where was the International team's assistant captain.

Who do you think will be an emerging or breakthrough player in 2011 on Tour? I love Ricky Fowler, the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. I like the look of Rory McIllroy who I think will continue to do big things in 2011. I’d like to see Lee Westwood win a major to solidify his position as the number one in the world. Graeme McDowell is another, although I see he’s changing equipment from Callaway to Srixon so I hope that works out well for him. He had such a great year and it was great to see the two European players, Martin Kaymer and he, win majors last year. Tell me a bit about your course design work? Are there more on the drawing board or it is taking a backseat this year? There is a lot of redesign work going on but the development of new courses has dried up quite a lot of late. However, I’m doing a course in China and I’m also doing some work with Jim Urbina, who was a co-designer of the new Old Macdonald links course at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. No doubt you'll be in Australia later in the year for the President’s Cup at Royal Melbourne. Are you interested in reprising your role as an assistant if asked? I’ll be there but I haven’t thought about that. I haven’t spoken to [captain] Greg [Norman] at all about the President’s Cup but I’d definitely be interested if I was asked, I’d be honoured to help out. He and Frank Nobilo did a good job last time in San Francisco and I know they’d dearly love to win it in Melbourne. A long way to go of course but the standings at the moment suggest a strong Australian and South African contingent for the International team, with probably Camilo Villegas and a few of the Asian players to add in. Not a bad looking team so far? HKGOLFER.COM

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interview INTERVIEW BY PAUL PRENDERGAST The magical 50 mark can often mean the onset of a mid life crisis! A Ponytail, earring and a Harley...

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