2004: Bairds’ estrangement a sad tale

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Haven, Wis.

This is the 30th anniversary of one of the best times of my life. In 1974, starting right here in the land of dairy, I spent a college summer caddying for Butch Baird on the PGA Tour. For a teen-ager interested in golf, there are not many better summer jobs, unless, of course, you happen to be playing the Tour.

At the time, Butch’s son, Briny, was 2. Three decades later, Briny Baird is a Tour player himself. He has been for five seasons, and several times he has come close to winning. His father taught him the game well, and Briny has improved steadily to the point he is widely considered one of the best players never to have won on Tour.

When Briny walked off Whistling Straits in the second round of the 86th PGA Championship, he had an

8-under-par 67-69–136 total. At the time, he was the leader by three strokes, before some big names in the afternoon grouping caught and passed him. He would trail only two players through 52 holes and remain in contention until his last eight holes Sunday.

Memories of my pleasant days with his father rushed back into this head and heart at the sight of Briny Baird. He wears the same type of hat his father has worn for decades. He also has his father’s light complexion. And he has the same wonderful skills of a dad who won twice on both the PGA Tour and Champions Tour.

The sad part is, in recent years, what they haven’t shared is the most important thing: a father-son relationship.

Their relationship grew distant, and at times nonexistent, after Butch divorced Briny’s mom, Jackie, in 1992 and ended up with another woman. They reconnected in 1999, during Briny’s rookie season on Tour, but the warmth turned cold again a couple of years ago.

Briny says he’d get upset because his father rarely called and didn’t take a more active role in his life. Briny would confront him and bluntly ask why it was so hard for a father to call his son. They haven’t talked since the 2003 Phoenix Open. Making the estrangment worse for Briny is that someone daily asks him about his dad.

“The hardest part is people not understanding the situation,” Briny said at the PGA. “I’m more tired of people asking me the question all the time.”

The saddest part is this: Butch and his wife of three years, Pam, showed up unexpectedly in Briny’s gallery during the final round of this year’s FBR Open in Phoenix. Briny said he was angry, shocked and shaken after spotting them on the 10th hole. He said it was difficult to play. So he had his caddie ask Butch and Pam to leave.

If there are two more painful words in our language than “Dad, leave,” I haven’t heard them.

I have liked Butch Baird.

A lot. He couldn’t have been better to me in that summer of ’74. I will always remember and appreciate that. He treated me like, well, a son, and I can’t tell you how important that was because my own father died when I was 9.

Butch and I talked about everything. We laughed and joked. We did a few social things together, like going to a Canadian Football League game. He took an interest in my life. He may have been a stutterer, but all I heard were nice words flowing from his mouth. When we worked our last round together and I had to head back to college, he invited me, his temporary caddie, into the clubhouse at Wethersfield (Conn.) Country Club to have lunch with his family.

We have seen each other occasionally over the years and the encounters always have been warm. In the late 1970s he called and asked if I’d be interested in helping run the media center at the Panama Open. In 1982, when my son was born, Butch Baird sent a baby gift.

The “baby gift” part is important because, according to Briny, Butch did not send him a baby gift or congratulations when Briny and wife Laura’s daughter, Madison, was born in March 2003.

Also, Butch did not inform Briny when he and Pam married three years ago. Briny says he learned it from a course marshal.

Briny says he couldn’t have been closer with his father growing up. But now, sadly, in a way he’s like one of the missing children whose photos he carries on his golf bag as part of his work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Briny has said that the easiest way to deal with his situation is to shove it away so he doesn’t get hurt further. “It just doesn’t hurt me anymore,” he said, perhaps in denial.

I called Butch Baird’s cellular phone after the second round to talk with him for this story and about his son’s success at the PGA. I left a message and he called me back. Among other things, he acknowledged that both of them are stubborn, pledged that they will patch things up, said he has left unreturned messages for his son, declined to delve into their problems and said he “absolutely” would call Briny if he won.

“I’d be more happy for him winning than I was when I won,” said Butch, now 67.

Briny, of course, didn’t win the PGA. He tied for 37th because of a pair of back-nine 41s on the weekend. But there is something more important than golf. It is called life.

As an old friend and a father myself, I would like nothing more than for Butch Baird to get back into his son’s life and love him with all his heart until the day he dies.

He should do it now. If he does, he will thank me much more than I did him for treating me like a son 30 years ago.

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