Usually private clubs don't have open tee times on Sunday afternoons, but on Father's Day at Oakmont, Aaron Baddeley and Tiger Woods had secured the last spot of the day, the coveted 3 p.m. slot, to play for the national championship. Going into Round 4, Badds had the lead.
Tiger, trailing by two, had the honor. He was a sight: jet-black pants (no pleats) and a red, skin-tight mock turtleneck with a spider-web pattern on it. Spidey, with a titanium driver. "He steps up the tee and it's like, 'Whoa,'" said Baddeley's veteran caddie, Pete Bender. Tiger smashed one down the middle.
Then came Badds, an Aussie looking to win his first major (although he did win the Australian Open at age 18 in 1999). He stared down the fairway for a long moment with his eyes closed. Visualize, visualize! In his hands was a dinky little fairway wood, but he was comfortable with it. He wasn't going to get into a match-play situation with Tiger. The main thing on number 1 a downhill par-4, 482 yards is to hit the fairway. That, and to two-putt.
The kid looked calm and he looked good, in his circa 1975 getup (white shoes, thick white belt, white hat, brown Munsingwear shirt, plaid pants). He hitched up his left sleeve, the way Tiger used to do before he went to the stretch fabrics.
Baddeley had his game plan and the swing with which to implement it, something teaching pros used to get paid to fix when it was called a reverse pivot. Now they get paid to teach it under a new name, "stack and tilt," in which the weight stays on the forward foot all through the swing. Baddeley's swing coach, Andy Plummer, has a big spread on it in the June Golf Digest. Johnny Miller's been talking about it on TV. It's all the rage.
Through three rounds, Baddeley's stack-and-tilt action along with his silky putting stroke had produced rounds of 72, 70 and 70. That sounds like dead last at the Hope, but Oakmont was tougher than Winged Foot, tougher than Shinnecock Hills, tougher even than Bethpage Black. It was fang city.
Baddeley swung. His play-it-safe tee shot stayed in the sticky right rough, his next three shots were nothing to e-mail home about, and three putts later he had a leadoff triple. Woods made a textbook U.S. Open 4 to start. "If you're going to make a triple, the 1st hole is the place to do it," Bender told his man.
And Baddeley, to his credit, didn't seem at all freaked out. He followed the messy 1st with realistic (for him) birdie putts on 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. But he couldn't get a handle on the speed of the greens, which he said changed from one hole to the next, and nothing went in. Then came a double-bogey on 7, and his front-nine score, 41, looked like a giant typo on the press-tent leader board.
As the round wore on, Baddeley's Sunday goals changed, from winning the U.S. Open to breaking 80. He finished in 13th place, seven shots behind the winner, Angel Cabrera, and six shots behind the runners-up, Woods and Jim Furyk. Just before Tiger took a stab at tying Cabrera with a 30-foot birdie putt on 18, Baddeley, grinding away, tried to will in a 25-footer for a 79. The ball came up a few inches short.
So a talented golfer screwed up the last round in his first chance to win a major. It's happened before and it'll happen again. In 1999 Mike Weir shared the 54-hole lead at the PGA Championship at Medinah, shot an 80, then won the Masters four years later.
Yes, Baddeley shot an 80, but he never quit, he never looked like he was trying to get out of Tiger's way, and he never looked like he didn't belong. Baddeley has an appealing calmness. "There's a wisdom there," says his coach. Baddeley is only 26, but what Plummer says rings true.
Baddeley whose father, Ron, was once the chief mechanic for Mario Andretti is on a team, with Bender and Plummer and Aaron's wife, Richelle. All the way around, Baddeley could hear Richelle, blonde and bouncy, cheering him on. "I was so proud," she said, "because he was giving 110 percent."
The husband is not one for hyperbole. "My goal was to give 100 percent on every shot, and I did," said Baddeley, a world-class talent at 18 who endured a long slump before winning at Hilton Head on Easter Sunday last year. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have had the character to do that. I would have folded under the pressure of playing with Tiger and trying to win the U.S. Open. I didn't do that. I putted poorly. The swing wasn't quite there a few times, but the effort was 100 percent." His character has improved, he said, as he has become an increasingly devout Christian.
If Tiger intimidated his playing partner, the playing partner would not admit it. There was almost no conversation between them, but Baddeley watched Tiger closely. "I saw how he never putts until he's really ready," Baddeley said. "That's something I need to work on."
He'll see more of Tiger next month at Congressional, at the new Tiger event, the AT&;T National. He'll see him again later in July at the British Open at Carnoustie.
The two players had a brief exchange on the 18th green Tiger isn't into commiserating, especially when he has just lost and headed to the scorer's room in the clubhouse. To get there they had to climb a tall flight of wooden steps, painted green. Baddeley, despite a long day at the office, led the way, bounding up the steps by twos. He looked eager to get the 80 behind him, and excited for whatever comes next.