Aaron Baddeley turned 40 last month … his Australian Open triumph over Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie now more than 20 years in the rear view mirror. It was a victory that anointed ‘Badds’ as golf’s next superstar, the man to beat Tiger Woods. His career over the past two decades never lived up to the hype but the now married father-of-six says his best golf is still to come.
The list of players identified as the next Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods is long and full of unfulfilled promise, cautionary tales and solid careers failing to reach their full potential.
After he claimed the 1999 Australian Open as an amateur, Aaron Baddeley was thrust into the limelight and widely considered destined to ascend to the pinnacle of the game, like Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller and Hal Sutton before him to name but a few.
“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,” said Gary Player after playing with Baddeley in early ’99 before he had claimed his first national Open.
“Baddeley has a better swing action than either Tiger Woods or Sergio Garcia, and he should prove himself the best,” was Peter Thomson’s assessment of Baddeley after he claimed the Stonehaven Cup.
Baddeley, too, felt his potential career trajectory was exceptionally high, and did little to temper the expectations of a salivating local media and fan base searching for the next Greg Norman and worldwide equivalents looking for a challenger to Tiger’s throne.
“If Tiger is the best player in the world, then I’ve got to be better than Tiger,” Baddeley said in 1999.
A second Australian Open followed in 2000, as a professional this time, then a solid career in America including multiple wins, two more victories at home, a Presidents Cup appearance and a highest world ranking of No.16. Nothing to be sneezed at of course, but certainly not what one would expect reading the above quotes from two of the best to ever lace up a FootJoy, and Baddeley himself.
Hindsight is of course 20-20, and one could forgive Baddeley for hiding behind the innocence of youth or claiming twisted words, however he regrets nothing about publicly stating his goals.
“I would say the same thing I said when I was that young. Tiger was obviously ridiculous, but at that time we didn’t know how good he was going to be. In 1999 he had only won two majors to that point, and he had probably his best year in 2000, but I mean in 1999, I would say the same thing because I believed in my ability, I believed that I could be the best in the world,” Baddeley exclusively told Golf Australia magazine.
A fairly reasonable belief given he was the first amateur Australian Open champion since Bruce Devlin in 1960 and with the backing of some of the game’s best of all time.
Pressure to fulfil his outwardly stated goals were no doubt a major hurdle for such a young player, however, Baddeley once again speaks with the clarity and honesty of a veteran, clearing any responsibility from others who spoke so highly of his potential.
“I would say that it was more the pressure from me. I didn’t feel any extra pressure from what Gary said or what Thommo said, it was more me trying to achieve what I wanted in the game,” says Baddeley. “And I feel like one thing that was tough, when I won that first Aussie Open and that following year having that expectation of playing that good every week.
“I wouldn’t say it was the external pressure, it was more me wanting to play great, because I thought I was good enough to be one of the greats of the game when I was younger.”
As his record shows, Baddeley has yet to become one of the greats of the game. But discussion of him walking away from the game a number of years ago was never seriously considered, and any suspicion he might not still be striving for higher honours are certainly misplaced.
“I feel like I haven’t achieved at this point what I would have liked to have achieved … that’s for sure.” – Aaron Baddeley
Baddeley is honest when asked to assess his career to this point, and far from quietly moving from the spotlight and looking towards life after golf.
“I would say it (career) is not where I wanted it to be, I feel like I haven’t achieved at this point what I would have liked to have achieved … that’s for sure. Winning just four times over here and four at home, I feel like I could have done better at this point. But I definitely feel like some of my best golf is in front of me still. I truly believe that,” he said.
Baddeley has shown signs he will be proven true to his word, sitting high on the leaderboard after three rounds at his first event of the year in Hawaii before a disappointing final day. The 2007 Australian Masters champion crediting the work he has done with new coach Butch Harmon, who he began working with in August last year.
“He has given me two, two and a half things to work on, and that’s it,” says Baddeley of his new coach. “I don’t do anything else. And I just see the game improving and getting better. I didn’t understand that as a youngster, it was ‘Let’s take a look at the swing and see what it looks like’.”
The change in attitude towards working on his game is perhaps unsurprising, given Baddeley was the poster boy for the unique Stack and Tilt swing. A swing that while delivering success, including his first PGA Tour win, was extremely different to the natural game he and Dale Lynch built in his formative golf years.
When asked if has regrets over his golfing life, the search for a better move is top of mind.
“I think if I knew what I know now, with the experience I have, how to manage a game, how to keep a game consistent, I probably wouldn’t have done a bunch of different swing changes,” he said. “I just didn’t know what that looked like, that maintaining a game.
“For so long, it was like build, build, build, especially when I was a kid with Lynchy. You’re building the game, building the swing, everything is about building, then you get to almost like the end product and it is like ‘Well, what do you do know?’ And I didn’t know how to manage that.”
Despite taking the sometimes rocky golf road he has, Baddeley is steadfast in his belief his best remains on the horizon. And like the younger version wasn’t afraid to identify Tiger as his target, the veteran who manages his time on Tour with juggling six young children is happy to outline just what he wants to achieve before he hangs up his spikes.
“I mean I want to be a major champ, at least one. And now golf is in the Olympics, how good would it be to be a gold medallist,” Baddeley enthuses. “So I would say those are probably two of my top goals right there. Be a major champ and a gold medallist.
“Winning takes care of everything, Tiger always said that and it’s true. Because if you just keep winning golf tournaments then the rest takes care of itself, the world ranking points, the starts, the starts in majors, winning majors, it all just takes care of itself.”
As to where Baddeley believes major success could come, he believes two events that might not spring to mind for a player who averages less than 300 yards off the tee but could be where he achieves what would be a defining career moment.
“Obviously at Augusta with the speed of the greens and having to be so creative around that golf course, that’s definitely a spot that I feel like I could do well at. And I would actually say the US Open,” Baddeley said.
“I am probably driving it the best I ever have, Butch has really been great with that. Then just the mentality of grinding out pars and chipping and putting and just being a mental grind. I actually enjoy that kind of golf where you just have to stay in it, keep your head in the game, grind out a bunch of pars, pick up a few birdies here and there, be patient. I am pretty good at that.”
Some might believe Baddeley is living a pipe dream with his comments, particularly given how the game has changed since he stepped onto the world stage. However, as one of the best putters on the planet over the past 20 years, with a short game to match, his work with Harmon to tighten up his long game and, particularly his driving, could see him climb the world rankings fast.
As a “buddy” of Bryson DeChambeau, Baddeley is of course all too aware of the changing nature of his profession, but won’t be chasing distance to the extreme like the reigning US Open champion.
His aspirations to claim one of the game’s most prized trophies is based on something that hasn’t changed since he took up the game as a kid from Wonga Park in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs.
“I love the game now as much as I did as a kid,” Baddeley confessed. “There is no ‘Man, I have to go play golf today’. If my boys want to go out and play, we will often go out and play. I love it. The motivation is deep down inside of me, I don’t need outside stuff to help.”
For a dedicated family man, who shares home-schooling duties with wife, Richelle, when back at his base in Arizona, it comes as no surprise that Baddeley’s golfing goals tie in with his children.
“My path has been my path and I feel like my best golf is still in front of me. I truly believe that.” – Aaron Baddeley
Having not won a tournament with his children able to truly appreciate the achievement, it is another force driving Baddeley on. So too the additional coaching he regularly receives from one of his sons.
“If I can win a couple of times, once a year, or something like that, these next few years are going to be good years and it’ll be fun too,” Baddeley said. “My boys and all the kids are getting into sport and they understand golf, especially my eight-year-old. He watches Shotlink all the time, and he is like ‘Dad, that was such a good shot on 12! How did you miss that putt from 10 feet?’
“It would be pretty cool to have a few good years coming up just to be able to do it with them, because I play a fair bit of golf with the kids at home, to be able to do that so that they can see it too, that would be pretty special.”
It is clear in chatting with Baddeley, he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that golf at the highest level is just a young player’s game.
And with improvements in just a few short months under Harmon’s tutelage, a clear desire to end his career as more than the amateur who shocked the Shark and his children egging him on, one would be brave to bet against Baddeley rediscovering his winning ways as he enters his 40s. Perhaps once again being likened to Nicklaus, a major champion at 46 with a similarly large brood watching on.
And one thing is for sure, if things don’t go quite to plan, Baddeley has no regrets about how his career has evolved from prodigy to professional.
“My path has been my path and I feel like my best golf is still in front of me. I truly believe that.”
BADDS’ BEST PUTTING TIP
Aaron Baddeley has been widely regarded as one of the best putters on the PGA Tour for two decades.
His last US victory came in 2016 and his putting that year was sublime. For example, he one-putted 43.88 percent of the 1,602 holes he played in the 2015-2016 season.
So, what is his best tip for every one of us who miss far more putts than we make?
“The number one thing would be check your putter face aim. Get on a tile floor and put your putter in line with the grout line so you can see if your putter face is aiming left, straight or right. Because when putting, the number one key is to have the ball start on line,” Baddeley said.
“Not only does this help you make putts but it helps you to read the greens. Because if you think it is a right edge putt, from say 10 feet, but you start it one cup outside the hole and you think you started it right edge, then it misses to the right, you start questioning your reads. So the better you can become at starting the ball on the right line not only will you make more putts but you will get better feedback with your green reading.
“That’s something I have always worked on, because if you can’t aim straight you have to make some sort of adjustment all the time with putting.”