Finishing School

Finishing School

Aaron Baddeley birdied three of the last four holes to win the FBR Open by a shot.
Darren Carroll / SI

By the time Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996, at age 20, he was nearly wholly formed as a golfer, setting an impossible standard for all who followed. Aaron Baddeley, 26, and Jeff Quinney, 28, can attest to that. Around the turn of the century Baddeley and Quinney were considered can’t-miss kids, but the road to stardom would be far more complicated than either could have imagined. Last week’s FBR Open served as a showcase for their developing careers, with mixed reviews. Thanks to a spectacular closing 64, Baddeley earned his second PGA Tour victory in the last 10 months, confirming that yes, at last, he is a young talent to be reckoned with. On Sunday evening he compared the FBR victory with his breakthrough at Hilton Head last April, which ended a five-year winless drought. As he said, “The first one felt like more of a relief, where this one is more like, All right, now I’m making headway to where I want to go.”

And where does he want to go?

“I want to be the best.”

Quinney, a rookie by way of the Nationwide tour, continued to be one of the surprise stories of the year, as he held a final-round lead for the third straight week. Yet once again it slipped away. Two strokes up with three holes to play, he bogeyed the final two holes to finish third, two behind Badds. But even after the crushing defeat Quinney took the long view. “I’m not going to let this bring me down at all,” he said. “I can learn from it and get better next time.”

The FBR, played at the TPC Scottsdale outside Phoenix, was not the first time Quinney and Baddeley have crossed paths. They both played in the 2001 Masters, though the only thing anyone remembers about that tournament was that Woods completed his unprecedented Tiger Slam. Quinney had punched his ticket to Augusta by winning the 2000 U.S. Amateur. Though he was twice a second-team All-America at Arizona State, it was Quinney’s thrilling overtime victory in the Amateur, at storied Baltusrol, that created sky-high expectations that he knew in his heart he couldn’t live up to. “The Amateur was a little bit of a surprise,” he says. “I was a good player, but my game probably was not ready to compete with the best in the world.”

After graduating in 2001 with a degree in finance, Quinney plied his trade on the Canadian tour, winning twice, and then moved up to the Nationwide tour, on which he toiled from 2002 to ’06. As a career minor leaguer he was often lumped in with other recent Amateur champs who have fizzled as pros, but Quinney hadn’t given up on himself, even if everyone else had. “I kept telling myself it was a matter of when, not if,” he says. “I wasn’t in a big rush. I knew I was improving every year, through swing changes and simply becoming comfortable with the travel and the whole thing that professional golf entails. I knew I was going to be O.K.”

Baddeley shared little of this patience, and it nearly drove him out of the game at the ripe old age of 19. He had first burst onto the scene in 1999, as a cocky 17-year-old competing against the pros in his native Australia. After being paired with Baddeley at the ’99 Greg Norman Invitational, Gary Player said, “The best young player I ever saw was Jack Nicklaus. I think this young man — and I don’t say this lightly — has the ability Jack Nicklaus had at the same age.” The hype machine nearly melted later that year when Baddeley, as an 18-year-old amateur, outdueled Norman and Colin Montgomerie in the final round to win the Australian Open. He turned pro shortly after the 2000 Masters, settling in Scottsdale to begin his assault on the PGA Tour. By September of that year he had missed the cut in seven consecutive events on Tour. “I very clearly remember this one night in September 2000, sitting on my bed in my apartment and telling my dad I wanted to walk away from the game,” says Baddeley. “I meant it too. I was so tired of missing cuts, so tired of playing poorly and being frustrated all the time. I was homesick, missing my family and my friends. Basically, I was miserable.”

A long heart-to-heart with his swing coach, Dale Lynch, helped Baddeley refocus, and that night he wrote out a series of long- and short-term goals. Already spiritual, he gave himself over to prayer and the Bible for guidance. “It was the worst time in my life, but I wouldn’t change any of it because it forced me to grow as a person,” he says.

Baddeley got a shot of confidence by winning a second Australian Open late in 2000, but after another run of missed cuts on Tour in ’01 the onetime boy wonder swallowed his pride and reported for duty on the Nationwide tour in ’02, joining Quinney. By virtue of a 10th-place finish on the money list Baddeley earned his way back to the big leagues for 2003, and this time he stuck, thanks to a newfound determination and a silky putting stroke that instantly was the envy of the Tour. In the summer of ’03 Baddeley also met the woman who would become his wife, Richelle Robbins, who further grounded him. “Richelle is my rock,” he says. She is a Scottsdale native, and last week the Baddeleys handed out about 80 passes to friends and family, many of whom turned out on Sunday in turquoise T-shirts emblazoned with badds brigade.

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place in late 2005, when Baddeley hooked up with tag-team swing coaches Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett. They have helped refine his long, loose, inconsistent action into a swing with much of the economy and poetry of countryman Steve Elkington, who has also worked with Plummer and Bennett. Last year at Hilton Head, Baddeley led a prayer service on the 18th green at sunrise on Easter and that afternoon held off Jim Furyk in a back-nine dogfight, draining a clutch six-footer for par on the 72nd hole to preserve the victory. Harbour Town is a claustrophobic shotmaker’s course that favors ball control; it is a measure of Baddeley’s versatility that he can also win at the risk/reward TPC Scottsdale, a noted bomber’s paradise. Baddeley surged into contention last Saturday with a seven-under 64, during which he ripped eight drives of 300 yards or more. He began the final round two strokes back of Quinney but sent an early message with an eagle on the par-5 3rd hole, smoking a four-iron from 230 yards to within three feet of the hole.

Quinney was game for the fight, at least until the bitter end. He learned to mix it up as the youngest of four brothers in a very athletic family. For 13 consecutive years a Quinney played varsity basketball at South Eugene (Ore.) High, and Jeff earned a permanent place in Axmen lore by once hitting six consecutive three-pointers in a half. “All the Quinneys are good shooters,” says one of the brothers, D.J., 32, a walk-on quarterback at Oregon. “We get it from our dad.” That would be Bob, who was an all-state basketball player in high school and went on to play at BYU. His other two sons were also college athletes: Rob, 40, played golf at Oregon, and Mark, 36, was an all-conference tennis player at BYU. The house they grew up in had a game room with an eight-foot-high hoop and carpeted floors. “It was basically tackle basketball,” says Mark, “and Jeff was the tackling dummy.”

No doubt that’s how Jeff feels after this three-week run of near misses, which began at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. On Sunday at the Hope, Quinney pulled off the shot of the year so far on Tour, acing the 17th hole to get within one of the lead before ultimately tying for fourth. A week later, at the Buick Invitational, he gave Woods all he could handle until an unsightly double bogey on the 12th hole.

As the second- and third-round leader at the FBR, Quinney had to respond to questions about his inability to close the deal, and on Sunday he seemed to offer an eloquent answer with back-to-back birdies on 13 and 14, pushing his lead to two strokes over Bart Bryant and putting him three up on Baddeley and John Rollins. But Quinney lost his nerve and his swing coming in, missing a six-footer for birdie on 15 and then snap-hooking his drive into a water hazard on the short par-4 17th. Baddeley stormed to victory with three straight birdies that were a dazzling display of power and touch: He reached the par-5 15th with a three-wood from 269 yards, drained a 24-footer on 16 and then got up and down from 50 yards on the 17th, sinking a key 10-footer.

“What makes Aaron so dangerous is that his ball striking has become very consistent, and there are days when he will make virtually every putt he looks at,” says Plummer, with a nod to Baddeley’s opening 65 that included 10 consecutive one-putts and only 20 putts overall. “Even with a tournament in the balance he has no fear.”

The same cannot be said for Quinney, at least not yet. But like Baddeley, he could look to Sunday as a measure of how far he has come. The victor was talking about winning major championships and challenging Woods, just as he did when he was a carefree teenager. However disappointed Quinney was, he chose to focus on the practical benefits of a third straight top 10 for a player who for so long has struggled to find his place. “I basically locked up my Tour card for next year,” he said, “and it’s barely February.”