The not-so-long longshot

The not-so-long longshot

Aaron Baddeley finished tied for sixth at 5-under, five shots behind Tiger Woods at the WGC-CA Championship.
Sam Greenwood/

Let's say you're filling out your entry in the all-important office Masters pool, and like the NCAA hoops pool, you know you've got to stray from the typical No. 1 seeds if you hope to make a splash.

Sure, Tiger or Phil has won the green jacket in five of the past six years, but where's the fun in picking the Florida Gators or Ohio State? Everyone picks them. So you start looking for the forgotten man like Tim Clark, the smallish South African who finished second last year.

But Clark has missed much of this season with injuries and finished 63rd at the WGC-CA Championship on Sunday. And so, in hopes of identifying the next N.C. State, the next Mike Weir to come out of the pack at the Masters, you settle on … Aaron Baddeley.

Yes, Baddeley. For a handful of reasons:

He is playing well

Baddeley, 26, won at cozy Hilton Head last year and proved it was no fluke with another W at the FBR on the wide-open, bomber-friendly TPC Scottsdale last month. He can excel at small ball or let the shaft out, take your pick, because while he's always been one of the Tour's best with the flat stick, the rest of his game has him sizing up putts for birdie, not par. After leaving his boyhood instructor, Dale Lynch, and spinning his Eccos under David Leadbetter, he's found something with new coaches Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett. Baddeley isn't the only one. The duo also coach Eric Axley, Will MacKenzie and Dean Wilson, who also earned their first Tour victories in 2006.

"I'm driving a lot straighter," Baddeley said after shooting a second-round 71 at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral last Friday, three strokes off the lead of Woods. (He would end up tied for sixth, five back.) "If I miss the fairway now, it's not by much at all, where I used to hit like off-the-wall, out-of-the-park balls. I can definitely hit the shots I need to hit now. I'm not scared or worried about a shot that's going to come. I used to have the big right ball, so I used to always worry if there was something down the right, if that right shot's going to happen. Now I don't have to worry because I know it's not in there."

The numbers back him up. After scuffing along at no higher than 186th in driving accuracy from 2003 through 2005, Baddeley got to 137th in 2006, the first full year he worked with Bennett and Plummer, and was 69th going into last week. As might be expected, his World Ranking has followed suit. He moved up to 32nd last week from 205th in '04.

He is happy

Ever notice how you play your best golf when everything else is going well? Wilson was in such a chipper mood at the International last year that he was seen laughing and having a great time mid-round. Baddeley, who shares a townhouse with his new bride, Richelle Robbins, is something of a car nut (his dad Ron was chief mechanic for Mario Andretti). He was beaming last week about his new Pontiac GTO, a black beast of a car that "just looks mean," he said.

Happiness comes from knowing where the ball is going, too, which Baddeley does. After being left in the dust by countrymen such as Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott (the player to whom he's often compared) in the early 2000s, Baddeley is gearing up for his first Masters in six years and visited Augusta National on the Monday of the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago.

"I felt really, really comfortable being there," he said. "A lot of the shot shapes suited my eye."

Playing with a club caddie, he shot even-par 72, which isn't bad considering he was playing a very different track from the one he played while missing the cut in 2000 and 2001.

He's a closer

Baddeley earned his reputation as a cool finisher when he stared down Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman to win the 1999 Australian Open. He was 18. Gary Player got so excited he 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."

As the youngest winner in the event's history and the first amateur to take the title since Bruce Devlin in 1959, Badds was given a special invitation to the 2000 Masters. He missed the cut, but he did defend his Australian Open title later that year, proving the first time was no fluke.

What if Player was right, and Baddeley is a Nicklaus in the making? Shouldn't that bode well at Augusta?

Maybe we'll see another Mickelson Masters, but don't count on it, the way Phil has played the past two weeks. Woods will probably win again, but you never know. Maybe this is one of those weird Weir years. Maybe it's Baddeley's time.

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