Golf / The 121st Open: Dry run whets the appetite of Baker-Finch: Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder as the champion pays a price for victory

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The Independent Online
IAN BAKER-FINCH was counting the cost of winning last year's Open Championship: commitments, distractions, little time for the family. Then came the crunch. No wine. The most famous claret jug in the world had driven the Australian to abstinence. In the land of Scotch whisky yesterday's announcement was greeted as the next worst thing to heresy.

Baker-Finch, who begins the defence of his title at Muirfield tomorrow, has had a mixed time since he won his first major championship by two strokes at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago. Elation was followed by a low of depressing scores, missed cuts and the downhill path to soft drinks. His one success since, almost inevitably, came in the Vines Classic in January.

'I wasn't playing well,' he said, 'and when I went back to the States in February I said I wouldn't drink any red wine until I won.' For three months he stuck to it but when his results still failed to improve he relented in time for the US Open. 'My body needed a drop of claret,' he said, and to confirm it he finished 13th at Pebble Beach.

Since then he has pinned the blame on a whirligig of events, instigated by his Open victory, that have eaten into his time even if his bank balance has expanded. At the Australian Open he had to speak at five dinners in six days; this week he has spent hours in the tented village signing autographs.

'One day I was looking at my schedule and wondered when I was going to get some golf in again,' he said. 'Most people get out of bed, look after the kids, go to the course and do nothing else but play and think golf. That's when you play your best. All the other things take a lot out of you.'

Not that his debilitating regime has stripped him of ambition here this week. Kel Nagle, the Australian winner of the 1960 Open, has said he believes three wins in a row are feasible for Baker-Finch and the champion has listened with sufficient credence that when he returned the 'auld claret jug' this week he told Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient: 'This is on loan for a week.'

A more pertinent reunion to aid ambition is between himself and the putter which helped him to a course record 64 at Birkdale. Like red wine the club had also been a victim of Baker-Finch's fall and was broken over his knee after missing a cut in Australia. Reshafted and restored to favour, it will show 'its true colours this week', according to Baker-Finch.

One man who has been showing his colours - on Saturday it was a huge cross of St Andrew on his sweater - is Colin Montgomerie who has taken up the mantle of Sandy Lyle in becoming Scotland's greatest hope for a home win. Yesterday's fashion note was a navy blue ensemble with a red shirt, an outfit identical to that of Nick Faldo, Montgomerie's friend and role model.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Montgomerie is anxious not only to ape the clothes but also to have Faldo and Baker- Finch's problems of dealing with demands following an Open triumph. Yesterday he listed his order of preference for the venue of that win as: Troon (where his father is secretary), Scotland (his birthplace) and then England (as a last resort). 'I don't want to get picky. Anywhere will do.'

Montgomerie finished third in last month's US Open, which he claims has improved his prospects here both in playing terms and in keeping his mental equilibrium over the next five days. 'Pebble Beach gave me a lot of confidence,' he said. 'It has taken away most of the self-doubt which I had during my three years as a pro. I'm pulling away from those doubts and the temperament phase.'

Meanwhile, Faldo, who won the championship the last time it was held at Muirfield in 1987, was pulling the applause away from his Scottish practice partner. At the 13th, a par three of 159 yards, he hit a tee shot to six feet but, considering the putt too close, he tossed the ball 30 feet from the hole and proceeded to roll it in.

The sizeable gallery was suitably impressed but the winner of two Open and two Masters titles had not finished. For his next trick he threw a ball into a greenside bunker and then chipped it straight in.

Surely he could not defy golfing improbability and make it three out of three? He could. His next bunker shot also found the cup. By then the excited spectators believed he could have found the hole blindfold, but rather than use up his week's worth of luck in practice he resisted the calls for an encore.

The bookmakers, who have made Faldo the 7-1 favourite here - short odds in a field of 156 - are no doubt reviewing their mathematics.

Norman's drive, page 30

(Photograph omitted)

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