ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. –– The cruel arm of golf can reach in and wring a competitor’s heart. It can knot a stomach and ruin an appetite. It can activate tear ducts and doubt. It can make someone want to dig a hole and hide.
Briny Baird knows about that, perhaps more than most.
“This game is so humbling, it’s incredible,” Baird said Sunday after making a watery bogey on the last hole and losing the McGladrey Classic by one stroke to Chris Kirk. “I mean, I could have crawled into a shell walking up to the green on 18.”
Kirk, a Georgia native who shot 14-under 266, was a popular winner because he lived at St. Simons Island for six years before moving back to the Atlanta area six weeks ago. But Baird would have been a storybook champion, given his bridesmaid history and the fact he underwent a surgery on each shoulder last fall and has played only three PGA Tour events since May 2012.
At 41, the son of former touring pro Butch Baird has the double-edged distinction of leading active, fully exempt players with most Tour starts (365) and money won ($13.18 million) without a victory.
No one, of course, is going to throw a pity party for anyone who has earned $13 million at his job over the last 15 years. But anyone who watched Baird’s finish at Sea Island’s Seaside Course and his reaction afterward couldn’t help but feel for him.
Even the winner.
“Briny is such a good guy,” said Kirk, 28, a fourth-year Tour player who won the 2011 Viking Classic as a rookie. “I wanted to win, but you hate to see it happen that way.”
Baird, now six times a runner-up finisher, fell out of a tie for first on the 72nd hole when he drove into a left bunker and, facing an awkward stance, slipped and hit an 4-iron approach from 202 yards out into water short left.
“I didn’t have a real good lie obviously,” said Baird, who ended up making a 25-footer for bogey. “But it was a doable shot. It really was. I didn’t do a good job.”
He would talk candidly with reporters for a few minutes afterward and sign autographs for many spectators. But, understandably, he was clearly hurting.
“It hurts to do what I did on the last hole,” Baird said. “It’s not all about winning, as I’ve said, but this hurts. This really does. This is very disappointing.”
Baird also finished second at the John Deere, Buick Open and Disney World tournaments in the early 2000s, and at the 2009 RBC Heritage and 2011 Frys.com Open. At the last, he played well and lost a dramatic six-hole playoff to Bryce Molder.
But this one probably hurt the most, given the finish – never mind that he made no Tour starts for more than 16 months until October because of the shoulder problems.
“It’s amazing what the difference could have been if I’d have just a bogey earlier …” Baird said. “It sure would sting less.”
Though he hit 15 greens in regulation in a closing 67, Baird said he didn’t have his best stuff Sunday. He talked of managing his game well and hanging in there. He said he fought his swing and felt his ball-striking was generally weak.
One wouldn’t have known it by watching his compelling final-group duel against Kirk on the back nine, when the sole lead changed three times.
Kirk went to 14 under and two shots ahead when he birdied from 10 and 25 feet, respectively, at Nos. 11-12, where Baird missed from 11 and 12 feet. Baird pulled one back on a 30-footer at 13, then went one ahead on a two-stroke swing at the next – Baird birdied from 6 1/2 feet after a brilliant 3-iron approach from 212 yards while Kirk bogeyed after driving into a hazard left.
Kirk found another left hazard with his approach at the par-5 15th, but saved par from 19 feet. Instead of taking a commanding lead, Baird three-putted for par from 42 feet, lipping a 4-foot comebacker. Kirk pulled even on a 15-foot birdie putt at 17.
At that point, Baird was questioning his own swing. The poor drive into a left fairway bunker at 18 didn’t surprise him.
Give him credit for candor. His revelation of his thoughts on the final tee box was a remarkable look into the mind of a longtime non-winner tied for lead on the last hole.
“I hit a terrible tee shot, and I turned to my caddie (2012 U.S. Mid-Am quarterfinalist Corby Segal) before we saw where my ball ended up and I told him, ‘If I would have hit the fairway, I would have looked at you and said that was 50-50, maybe not even that.’ It would have been kind of lucky.
“Obviously I told him I didn’t feel good with my swing, wasn’t comfortable and . . . you mix that with nerves and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Unfortunately for him, his thoughts turned negative.
But the result, one would think, will feel better to Baird as time passes. His consolation is that he played well all week and earned enough money ($484,000) to satisfy his major medical extension and become fully exempt for the remainder of the 2013-14 season.
“You know,” Baird said, “there’s always a silver lining.”