2003: Not Badd . . .

By Rex Hoggard

To those watching the action unfold from afar, it seems Aaron Baddeley has it all. The movie-star good looks, the g’day-mate smile, all wrapped in a wardrobe befitting a hipper, modern day James Dean.

As is the case with all good books, this cover can be deceiving.

Shrouded beneath the 21-year-old’s smooth exterior hides the soul of a perfectionist with a blue-collar work ethic and an almost limitless desire to succeed.

Even Baddeley’s swing – a marvelous example of art in motion when, as an 18-year-old amateur, he became the youngest player to win the Australian Open – wasn’t good enough.

With three international victories and the heavy moniker “Australia’s Tiger Woods” in tow, the wunderkind bolted the Victorian Institute of Sport and longtime coach Dale Lynch for swing guru David Leadbetter and something altogether new.

“On the outside it looked good, but when you looked close it really wasn’t,” Baddeley said. “It was on a knife’s edge. The whole time I felt like I had to work a lot to keep it . . . work a lot to maintain it. That’s not what a good golf swing is.”

On Jan. 19, armed with retooled action and a PGA Tour card, he showed the world a glimpse of the real Aaron Baddeley, falling half a roll short in his final-round duel with Ernie Els at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

“He’s young but he stuck in there. I couldn’t shake him,” said Els, who needed two extra holes and a 43-foot birdie bomb to edge Baddeley. “He’s definitely a future star out here.”

After watching Baddeley’s rookie opener in Hawaii, it’s hard to a imagine a time when his future looked anything other than limitless. Yet the road to Waialae Country Club and taking his spot among the game’s up-and-coming set was anything but smooth.

His success in Australia aside, the record clearly shows Baddeley’s game didn’t travel well. He won his second consecutive Australian Open in 2000, then added the 2001 Greg Norman Holden International. But in 21 PGA Tour events prior to last week’s shootout with Els, he had never finished better than 44th and he’d made it to the weekend just five times.

By mid-2001, Baddeley decided it was time for a shake-up. In August 2001, he approached Leadbetter with a proposition. A blank canvas with no boundaries. His only request: A swing that would hold up under tournament pressure.

Although Leadbetter stopped short of calling his work with Baddeley a complete overhaul, he characterized the initial lessons as a “major retooling.”

The primary culprit in Baddeley’s pre-Leadbetter woes was a closed clubface at the top of his backswing. The solution was much more complicated.

“Under pressure he’d hit these wild hooks,” Leadbetter said. “He’s the type of player who needs to stand up there with a square clubface and just be able to really release it.”

Leadbetter strengthened Baddeley’s left-hand grip and widened his stance to give his 6-foot-1, 182-pound pupil better balance. The most important piece of the puzzle was getting Baddeley’s club on plane at the top of his backswing.

“I liked what he said and I saw results right away,” Baddeley said of his first meeting with Leadbetter. “I like Ty’s (Tryon) swing (a Leadbetter student). I like what I’d seen through other players.”

It didn’t take long for the relationship to blossom.

“Right away we hit it off,” Leadbetter said. “He really trusted me and that helped us build a friendship.”

Baddeley got off to a rough start in 2002 on the Buy.com Tour, starting the year with an 84 at the Jacob’s Creek Open Championship in Australia. He missed the cut in four of his first seven events on the developmental circuit.

“It was a bit difficult at first, making some changes and not playing as good,” Baddeley said. “But when you make changes those things happen.”

Slowly, Leadbetter’s “no-nonsense type game” started to take hold and Baddeley’s confidence began to grow. A runner-up showing in Knoxville in June was the spark that helped ignite a solid, if not spectacular, October. Baddeley posted back-to-back runner-up finishes in California and Arizona and added a tie for fourth in Louisiana and a tie for 13th at the Buy.com Tour Championship to secure his first trip to the PGA Tour.

“I feel like I’m going to get better every week. It’s not like I have to work hard to find it, it’s not like I have to work hard to maintain,” Baddeley said. “It was just a matter of time before it clicked.”

For your average 21-year-old rookie, explaining last week’s Sony Open title bout might have been as simple as that: Something just clicked. For Baddeley, however, it was an all-important first step in a carefully orchestrated blueprint, a plan that includes a PGA Tour victory and, after two trips down Magnolia Lane, a return to the Masters.

His runner-up showing moved him to 85th in the World Ranking, 35 spots from Augusta. Ranked No. 375 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index in early 2002, Baddeley has jumped to No. 229.

“My expectations are extremely high,” he said. “Higher than what anyone else has ever thrown on me.”

It’s those expectations, and his drive to make his lofty goals reality, that define Baddeley. The flashy exterior just adds to the show.

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