Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 20, 2011

A Very Good Day To Be Badds

In the final full-field event of its traditional season-opening West Coast Swing, the PGA Tour stopped this week at historic Riviera Country Club for the Los Angeles Open. Technically, one of the oldest stops on the Tour is currently the Northern Trust Open, since one can’t hold a PGA event without recognizing the major sponsor. But the stop in L.A. has been around for more than eight decades, and presenting sponsors come and go; so for serious golf fans it will always be the L.A. Open.

The tournament led a nomadic existence for the first half of its life. Although the twelve events staged at Riviera made it the most frequent host, the L.A. Open was played at ten different venues prior to 1973. Since then, except for two years when the grand old course in Pacific Palisades was being readied for a major, Riviera has been the tournament’s home.

History alone demands that the golf course be a part of every PGA Tour season. Opened in 1927, Riviera Country Club, like many Tour stops, is an exclusive private course; one whose membership over the years has included many Hollywood stars, starting at the club’s beginning with Douglas Fairbanks and wife Mary Pickford. The course earned its nickname of “Hogan’s Alley” when in the course of sixteen months in 1947 and 1948 Bantam Ben won both year’s L.A. Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera. Since the annual February event moved permanently to Riviera, the list of winners is a who’s who of golfing greats. Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Fred Couples, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson all count the L.A. Open on their list of PGA Tour victories; with Watson, Couples and Mickelson all having won the event twice.

Riviera was designed by prominent golf course architect George C. Thomas Jr. Thomas had input from Dr. Alistair MacKenzie, the legendary designer of the very private Cypress Point and Augusta National, as well as Pasatiempo, one of the greatest public courses in the country. The course is a classic layout, its fairways lined by towering eucalyptus and evergreens; its gnarly kikuyu rough waiting to swallow up an errant tee shot. Riviera has its share of short risk/reward holes, such as the opening downhill par 5 and the par 4 10th hole, which is reachable off the tee by long hitters. But it also confronts the golfer with some massive par 4’s on the back side, made even longer by the fact that they play directly into the prevailing winds off of the nearby Pacific. The signature hole on the front nine is the par 3 6th, which features a donut green with a bunker in the middle. On the back nine, golf fans everywhere recognize Riviera’s finishing hole. The dogleg right par 4 plays uphill to a narrow green surrounded by a natural amphitheater, with the clubhouse perched above. On the final day of every L.A. Open, the hillside is crowded with fans, watching stadium golf at a course built half a century before Deane Beman and Pete Dye came up with the idea for designing viewing-friendly golf courses.

The first two rounds of this year’s tournament belonged to Fred Couples. One of the most popular golfers of his time, the 51-year old now plays mostly on the senior, or Champions Tour. Couples was in fact the defending champion at that Tour’s ACE Group Classic, being played this week across the country in Naples, Florida. But Freddie loves Riviera, and so passed up the opportunity to defend his Champions Tour title in order to play the L.A. Open for the 29th time. With opening rounds of 68 and 66 in intermittent rain on Thursday and Friday, Couples moved to 8 under par and was leading the tournament at the halfway point.

But while the fans continued to cheer his every swing, Couples played the weekend in one over par, and outside of a U.S. Open that sort of scoring seldom results in victory at a Tour stop. Instead it was 29-year old New Hampshire native Aaron Baddeley who surged to the top. A four under-par 67 in Saturday’s third round moved Baddeley one shot clear of Couples and Kevin Na. A closing two under 69 gave Baddeley his seventh win as a professional and third on the PGA Tour.

With the victory, his first in four years, Baddeley becomes one more member of the growing youth movement on the PGA Tour. It’s a movement that some thought the golfer nicknamed “Badds” would be leading by now. Although born in the U.S., Baddeley’s parents are Australian, and the family returned to Melbourne when their son was just two. While he holds dual citizenship, Baddeley considers himself Australian and plays for the island continent down under in international events.

Introduced to golf as a child by his grandmother, Baddeley quickly took to the game and at age 18 won the Australian Open in 1999. He remains the youngest winner ever of the event, and was the first amateur champion since 1960. With that promising beginning he turned pro in 2000, and successfully defended his Australian Open championship that year. He was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour of Australasia in 2000 and 2001, and returned to the U.S. in 2002 full of promise and potential.

But after earning his PGA tour card for 2003 by finishing tenth on the 2002 Nationwide Tour’s money list, Baddeley’s career stalled. The young Australian stars who captured the attention of golf fans were Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott, not Baddeley.

Baddeley finally broke through in 2006, winning his first PGA Tour title with a one-shot victory at the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town. A year later he won again, another one stroke victory, this time in Phoenix. In June of that year, it looked like all of Baddeley’s promise was finally going to be fully recognized. He was the 54 hole leader at the U.S. Open, two strokes clear of Tiger Woods and three ahead of a quartet of golfers.

But that Sunday at Oakmont would be remembered for the play of Angel Cabrera, not Aaron Baddeley. The Australian opened with a horrendous double bogey. Looking very much like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, he hacked his way around to a ten over par 80, falling all the way into a tie for 13th place.

For some athletes, massive failure on a big stage can mean the end. For others, it can be turned into a valuable lesson learned and mark the beginning of a renewal. For a few, over time, it may mean both. Baddeley finished 10th on the Tour’s money list in 2007. He fell to 49th in 2008, 101st in 2009 and 110th last year.

But while Baddeley’s golf game was going nowhere, his personal life was becoming a source of enduring strength. Married in 2005, Baddeley and his wife Richelle welcomed daughters Jewell in 2008 and Jolee last year. His Aaron Baddeley International Junior Championship, which he started in 2001 to help young golfers bridge the gap between amateur and professional play, has grown into one of the most significant events for junior players in Australia and Asia.

With that stability backing him, Baddeley on Sunday showed that on the golf course he may yet have a second act. Starting the day with a one-stroke lead, he watched Couples pass him with three straight birdies to start the final round. But this Sunday at Riviera was not going to be a replay of that awful Sunday at Oakmont. When he rolled in a 20 foot birdie putt from the fringe on the 7th hole as Couples was recording a double bogey, Baddeley was back in the lead. When he faltered with his own double bogey on the 12th, he followed with a chip-in birdie on the 13th. He then recorded five consecutive pars to close out a two stroke victory.

A single win does not, by itself, restore a career. But this wasn’t just any win. This was the L.A. Open, a tournament that always has a tough field; played at a classic golf course, one that is difficult and demanding. With the win the New Hampshire born Australian is into this year’s Masters. More important, with the win perhaps Badds told us, not so much that he is back, but that he never really went away.

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