Hate to be Rude: Think positive

FORT WORTH, Texas – Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder. It jettisons fear. It erases pain like an Etch A Sketch. In the case of golf, it seduces you back.

Why else would Ian Baker-Finch be playing again this week?

He, of course, is the affable Australian who lost his game 15 years ago, only three years after winning the 1991 British Open. His free-fall from elite status is arguably the most severe slide in the game’s history, at least this side of former No. 1 David Duval.

Now 48, Baker-Finch is climbing out of the CBS broadcast booth to play the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial this week. It will be his first tournament since the 2001 Colonial, which was his first start since he shot 92 in a comeback attempt at the 1997 Open Championship at Troon.

He’s back for more because golf never quite leaves a champion’s system and because, well, time heals like no team of doctors can.

Here’s what IBF is taking to the first tee Thursday: 33 missed cuts in a row on the PGA Tour, dating to 1994, and 44 missed cuts in his past 45 starts.

But here’s something else he’s bringing: A frame of mind no longer paralyzed by fear. IBF is so upbeat that he actually said, “I certainly feel if I play well, I can be around on Sunday.”

Around on Sunday? That sounds like a complete exorcism.

By a cardinal. Not just any priest.

I am fairly certain no one has ever taken 33 consecutive cuts to the first tee on Tour. That speaks of a man’s love of the game, so pronounced that fellow Aussie Geoff Ogilvy calls him the “most enthusiastic golfer in the world.” His reappearance from the depths also points to a mended psyche and the fact he is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his Colonial victory.

“I really feel quite comfortable,” he said. “I’ve been playing really well. I know I will be nervous. There is no hiding it. I know it’s going to be difficult. It might take me three or four or six holes to get comfortable. Hopefully I do get comfortable.”

Yes. Hopefully he does. As Beano Cook said when President Reagan freed the hostages from Iran and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave them lifetime passes to Major League Baseball: “Haven’t they suffered enough?”

Hasn’t IBF suffered enough on a golf course? The answer is, Yes.

In 1995, his darkest season, he missed all 18 cuts, had a scoring average of 76.64 and ranked 189th in both driving distance and driving accuracy. The next year he went 0-for-11. The next year he quit, tired of fighting fear.

“I couldn’t handle the pressure,” he said, “and didn’t like the fact I was playing poorly. So I said, ‘Hey, why do I put myself through this? I’m going to go do something I enjoy.’ ”

That something was broadcasting. It’s harder to drive a ball out of bounds from the booth.

Baker-Finch flamed out at an age when many golfers peak, in the early 30s. His demise was something of a perfect storm. After winning the Open and getting paired with power players, he tried to add length. But he got crooked and shorter after making the swing changes. He suffered injuries. And then he lost his confidence.

Just like that, the winner of 16 international titles was done.

“The bigger the event, the worse I played,” he said.

The worst was at Troon. He said his swing was a “foot shorter” than usual because he was so nervous. He was devastated by the 92. Watching it was like being a voyeur into a man’s misery. But that’s golf. You can’t hide and you can’t call in a substitute.

“If you fear the fact you’re not going to hit it where you’re aiming, you can’t play the game,” Baker-Finch said. “You have to be bulletproof. The guys out here who play well are bulletproof. The guys who win hit the shots and know they are going to hit it there and not fear. The guys that can’t quite win, you see it all the time, they can’t quite do it. It’s just fear. It’s a terrible thing.

“I can admit it now. I’m old enough. It doesn’t really trouble me.”

IBF was one of the game’s best putters during his prime. Now, he plays about four times per week recreationally and says his strength is something that was a weakness during the end: Driving accuracy. But he knows conquering the mental part of the game will be the key Thursday-Friday.

“I would like to be able to prove to myself that I can go out there and be smart enough to talk myself into the fact that I can relax and go play the game again like I know I can play or like I played last week with my buddies at home,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any reason why if you can just control your emotions.”

Easier said than done. Especially considering he’s a conspicuous sideshow, one that figures to attract some TV time.

“I’m sure the Golf Channel will show me . . . will probably show a slim 28-year-old on one side and a fat 48-year-old on the other and have fun with it,” IBF said. “I’m totally happy with all that. I’m really, really looking forward to it.”

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