No player will set out with less confidence than Baker-Finch. Nightmares rise up before him. It's more than slump, it's free fall

at the Open
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The Independent Online
To paraphrase a lyric that was up there for a while, what goes on in Ian Baker-Finch's mind, what are the thoughts that surround him? The Open champion at Birkdale in 1991, it is an event these days if his ball lands on the fairway.

The Australian 's ongoing anguish highlights an aspect of golf that people fail frequently to appreciate. Technical flaws are less damaging than mental disturbance. A player can look great in rehearsal but then give a very poor performance.

Baker-Finch is not alone in this but no player will set out over the links of Royal Troon with less confidence. Nightmares rise up before him. It's more than slump, it's free fall. In the Open at St Andrews two years ago Baker-Finch began by hooking wide of a fairway wide enough to accommodate a fleet of buses. At Lytham last year his ball ended up in a champagne tent.

For quite a while Baker-Finch has given the impression that he could not be absolutely sure of hitting the ball with a banjo. There must have been plenty of times when he wished that golf had not been invented.

Golf can be that sort of game but it is usually the putting stroke that deserts them; fine from tee to green but the damn ball won't drop. If Baker-Finch had just that to worry about he would probably go around happy. There is still a smile on his face but it does not tell everything about him.

For example, it took courage to play in the Open, in fact, just to go out in a tournament because the gift is still missing. "If I knew why it wouldn't have gone," he said yesterday. "There isn't one specific thing, not an injury, one bad swing fault. It's not like my big toe got chopped off or anything like that.

"No, I'm just fighting my way through it, working hard, and maybe I'll come back and defend at Birkdale next year."

It is pretty obvious from those words that Baker-Finch will not be setting off today with great expectations. Making the cut would be a triumph. Apart from a few minor events in Australia he has not played since last year's Open. "I was allowed to take a year off the US Tour and my plan is to play in some of the Australian tournaments," he said.

Plenty of golfers have been down the lonely road, none more agonisingly than Bill Rogers whose career collapsed following his victory in the 1981 Open Championship at Sandwich. Sensing that the gift had gone for good Rogers is now a club professional.

Does the Open carry a curse for some of its winners? Rogers, Baker-Finch and Mark Calcavecchia, who has only won twice on the US Tour since winning at Troon in 1989. It isn't something Baker-Finch cares to think about. "You just don't know," he said. "You've got it one day, then it's gone. But for the last three or four months I've been working on my game with Gary Edwin and I think it's turning around. I see a lot of good changes, and my swing is very much different. It's more like it was six or seven years ago."

That's the easy part. The hard part is convincing himself that he can compete again. Baker-Finch has received plenty of support and more advice than most players get in a lifetime. He admits to mental torment. "Keeping your head up helps you to handle it well, but it doesn't improve your game. I've simply got to trust myself and things that used to work for me. I love the game, I love playing. I don't want to do anything else. But it's up to me. Nobody else can get me back on track."

After a practice round yesterday Baker-Finch's back was hurting. He can take pills for that but there is no relief for what goes on in his mind. He doesn't know whether the ball will go straight today or into the next county. Asked if he had any advice for Tiger Woods, he said: "I wish Tiger would give me some".

Baker-Finch would like us to remember that he played well in the 1994 Open, finishing 10th. "Actually it should have been better. I just didn't play well over the last few holes. But that's the last time I resembled a golf professional. It's been hideous but I've never thought about giving up."

It isn't sympathy Baker-Finch wants, just a sign that his swing is working again. Straight down the middle from the first tee would do but the way things are it would be wise to take cover.