Nice Try, Kid
Bad luck and Ernie Els kept Aaron Baddeley from his first win
The Sony Open has a history of fluky finishes. In 1983 Isao Aoki
bounced his approach into the cup on the 72nd hole to become the
first Japanese player to win on the PGA Tour. Last year John Cook
lost a chance at victory when his tee shot on the 71st hole was
ruined midswing by a ringing cellphone. This time around the
tournament offered a double whammy of weirdness, discombobulating
both Ernie Els and Aaron Baddeley.
Tied for the lead at 16 under on the jinxed 17th, Els was lining
up a long birdie putt when Baddeley asked if he should move his
ball marker. Els waved him off, then putted directly over the
coin--"a freakin' English pound," Els said with a laugh
later--and watched his ball pop in the air and bounce to a halt
just short of the hole. "A total amateur mistake [on my part],"
Els said. Baddeley then stepped up to his three-footer for par,
but as he was taking the putter back, he was distracted by the
slamming door of a nearby Port-A-Potty. He backed off the putt
but never regained his focus, slamming his ball through the break
and out of the hole.
Baddeley pulled even at the last with a rousing birdie, but the
fates were already aligned against him. On the second playoff
hole Els rammed in a stunning 43-footer for birdie from off the
green, and Baddeley's answer, from 20 feet, stopped a half inch
short. Coupled with his record victory a week earlier at the
Mercedes Championships, Els became the first player since Steve
Jones in 1989 to win the first two events on the schedule and has
collected $1.81 million in two weeks, a figure that would have
topped the final money list as recently as 1996. "It's a crazy
game," Els said on Sunday.
Indeed, after going 31 under at the Mercedes, Els was two over on
the first five holes at Waialae Country Club. He closed the front
nine birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle, and rolled from there. Els
opened 666566, putting him two back of Baddeley.
Despite the suggestion of the highlights in his hair, a flashy,
retro wardrobe and a vanity website (badds.com) advertised on his
cap, Baddeley, 21, radiates maturity and an inner peace, and he
seemed unfazed to be the 54-hole leader in his first start as a
Tour member. Says fellow Australian James McLean, "Aaron's very
dedicated about golf, and he's a very strong Christian. He's
serious about that. It directs his life and his decisions."
Plenty of observers had their faith in Baddeley tested over the
past few years. After his shocking victory at the 1999 Australian
Open as an 18-year-old amateur, he struggled to find his way in
the U.S. In 2001, as a non-Tour member scrounging for sponsors'
exemptions, he made only two cuts in nine events. Last year he
was consigned to the Buy.com tour but clawed his way to 10th on
the money list, earning a promotion to the big leagues.
The toughness he developed along the way was evident during
Sunday's final round. Baddeley hit only four fairways but showed
his resolve as he scrambled to keep up with Els, who shot an
effortless 67. (Baddeley also displayed a superb stroke; for the
week he led the field with only 103 putts.) In the end Els was
just too good, and too experienced. "I know exactly what it feels
like for Aaron," Els said on Sunday evening. "I've been there
quite a few times. I know it's disappointing, but he's going to
win a lot of tournaments."
Els, of course, already has. The last player to win his first
three Tour starts in a season was Johnny Miller in 1974, but the
Big Easy is going to take his sweet time trying to equal that
feat. From Hawaii he left for the Singapore Masters, and then
it's on to two tournaments in Australia. His next PGA Tour
appearance will be the Match Play Championship in Carlsbad,
Calif., which begins on Feb. 26.
Don't bet against Els, who has now won eight tournaments
worldwide in the last 13 months. The guy is no fluke.
Tiger Woods's knee suddenly feels a lot better. The Tour's
biggest star doesn't like sharing the spotlight, and Ernie Els's
roaring start has surely gotten Woods's attention. Already back
on the course as he recovers from surgery, Woods will play in San
Diego on Feb. 13, eager to reassert himself.
The first batch of Ernie Els's Stellenbosch 2000 wine recently
came to market in South Africa, and a dozen bottles found their
way to Waialae Country Club, where members snapped them up, in
five minutes, at $65 apiece. (Els promised to sign each bottle.)
The wine, from a blend of cabernet and merlot grapes, was
described by the Honolulu Advertiser as "smooth" with "a strong
finish," which pretty well sums up Els's performance at the Sony.
Corey Pavin was married on Jan. 8 in Maui to the former Lisa
Nguyen. Pavin, a two-time winner of the Hawaiian Open, finished
15th last week at the Sony Open--as the Hawaiian is now
known--during a working honeymoon.
Natalie Gulbis was spotted last week house-hunting in the Las
Vegas area. No word on whether or not her overprotective dad
will be moving into a spare bedroom.
Organizers of the Byron Nelson Championship began last
Thursday's annual kickoff luncheon with an unusual prayer: "Lord,
give us blue skies, calm winds and Tiger Woods." Alas, Woods has
let it be known that he will miss the Nelson for the first time
in his professional career, opting instead to spend May 15--18 in
Germany defending his Deutsche Bank--SAP Open title, for which
he'll receive a reported $2 million appearance fee. "I understand
how somebody would want to defend their tournament titles. I
defended plenty of mine," Byron Nelson tells SI. "I fully expect
him to return in 2004 and 2005."
The St. Andrews Links Trust has approved installation of a
memorial bench near the 1st tee of the Old Course in honor of
longtime caddie George Stewart, known far and wide as Dod. He
was killed on Nov. 24, 2002, at the age of 46, when the taxi in
which he was riding collided with a bus. Dod had carried on
more than 5,000 rounds on the courses around St. Andrews and
was frequently requested by repeat visitors who remembered his
expressive, weather-beaten face and wicked sense of humor,
imparted with an impenetrable Scottish accent.
From the geniuses at the PGA Tour: Despite winning the first
two events of the year, including a record 31-under performance
at the Mercedes, Els is currently ranked fourth in the adjusted
scoring average statistics.
VOTE AT GOLFONLINE.COM
THIS WEEK: Who is the best player in the world under 25: Aaron
Baddeley, Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell or Adam Scott?
LAST WEEK: Since March 2002, Ernie Els had been No. 3 in the
World Ranking to Phil Mickelson's No. 2, but following the
Mercedes, Els is No. 2 to Lefty's No. 3. Who is the better
Els 85% Mickelson 15%
--Based on 3,852 responses to our informal survey
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN [INSIDE COVER] 2 FOR 2003 Ernie Els Sweeps The Hawaiian Swing G8 SECOND STRAIGHT Unlike his win at the Mercedes, Els's playoffvictory at the Sony Open didn't come easy.
COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH EYEBALLING Baddeley, 21, scrambled to keep up with the veteranEls.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN RUSSELL/AP STARDUST The flashy Gulbis should feel at home in Las Vegas.