There was a time when Ian Baker-Finch wasn't sure the Champions Tour was for him. The doubts about his golf game kept creeping in. Swing thoughts, too many to count, swirled in his head. The harder he tried to fix it, the larger the doubts became.
"I guess it started to make me wonder whether it was the right decision," Baker-Finch said.
The misgivings are gone now.
"Now that I'm here, I know it was (the right decision)," Baker-Finch said Wednesday at Newport Beach Country Club on the eve of his Champions Tour debut at the Toshiba Classic.
"Everyone always says you will love it. It's like going to a family reunion. It's like a picnic every week with your old buddies. I'm going to have a great time."
But the picnic doesn't include a pick-up game of softball. It offers big-time tournament golf on the Champions Tour with major champions standing on nearly every tee. It will be a challenge but Baker-Finch won't be out of place. He's a major champion, too.
Baker-Finch, a native of Nambour, Australia, became a surprise rising star when he closed out the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. He did it in style, capturing the Claret Jug with final rounds of 64-66. Baker-Finch won 17 times worldwide, and on the PGA TOUR added the 1989 Southwestern Bell Colonial to his Open Championship. Just as sudden as the rise was his demise.
Baker-Finch's decline was so precipitous that it has become sort of a benchmark for collapses. Many of his problems were psychological. He tinkered with too many thoughts and too many swings. At times he could stripe the ball. Other times he had no chance.
As he neared the Champions Tour, Baker-Finch, who celebrated his birthday in October, had to deal with those same fears.
"I'm also experiencing exactly what I thought I would with the apprehension of how am I going to play," he said. "I hope I don't make a fool of myself. I hope my golf is good enough that I can continue to enjoy myself and enjoy the experience."
Baker-Finch said his game is better now after ups and downs over the past month. It got to a point where he said, "Right, I'm just going to go back to doing what I do," instead of testing new swing thoughts recommended by friends and supporters trying to help.
How many swing thoughts does Baker-Finch estimate he's had to deal with?
"Thirty-six thousand," he said.
"It's the reason why I stepped away from the TOUR 15 years ago. I got to a point where I couldn't trust myself, and I felt bad about myself, and I wasn't competing. So I said I need to go and try to do something else."
Baker-Finch didn't have trouble finding a gig once he left the competitive side of the game. He became a successful television commentator, which will remain his primary focus regardless of how things turn out this week or the rest of the season. Still, he's eager to test the waters.
"I knew exactly how I would be and now that I've made it here I'm more relaxed and ready to go ahead and play and compete and to have some fun," he said.
"It's great to be here. Not many people wish their lives away and can't wait until they get to 50. But to get a chance to come out and play on the Champions Tour is going to be a great thrill for me. I haven't heard anything bad from anybody over the last three or four years when guys start talking about getting into their late 40's and what's it going to be like on the Champions Tour."
Baker-Finch is one of the nice guys. That's why it was so unnerving for those around him to see him suffering with his game and forced to leave the competitive side of it. He has tried to beat back the demons by "reading books and listening to sports psychologists" and believes that negative thoughts must be allowed to escape.
"The reason the good players are really good is that they let those (negative) thoughts go, and they focus on what they're doing and their routine is sharp," he said. "I know I don't have a sharp routine because I haven't played for 15 years, and I know that's really all I need to work on the next few days is just play the way I play and work on my routine so the first tee Friday morning I just stick to my routine and hit my shot and go do what I do."
Baker-Finch is hoping a little back-to-the-future will help in that regard. He has recruited caddie Pete Bender, who was on his bag at Royal Birkdale, to loop for him. If all goes well, Baker-Finch expects to play maybe four or five times on the Champions Tour to complement his work for CBS.
"That's all I can do," he said. "I work 22 weeks for CBS, three weeks for TNT and four weeks in Australia."
But this week, Baker-Finch, who finished 15th at the Australian Senior Open last year in his only tournament appearance, is ready to enjoy the Champions Tour, a decidedly different approach than the one he used to take.
"It will be good fun," Baker-Finch said. "I know it will. I know everybody is behind me. I think I'm going to take the mental approach that people are just happy to see me out there playing again. Not necessarily expecting me to win or expecting me to play great, hey, Baker Finch is 50, he looks great. He's still got that long loose swing. I think they will be happy to see me out there. I am going to take that approach."