The Prodigy sleeps, his body ravaged by influenza, his spirit
crushed from having missed his own party. Fifteen miles away the
Australian Masters is being played, and here lies Aaron
Baddeley, the 18-year-old amateur who rocked the golf world in
November by staring down Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman to
win the Australian Open. Dark, heavy curtains have been drawn,
turning Baddeley's bedroom into a stifling cave. A fan whirs in
the corner. A small television next to the bed lights Baddeley's
face, giving it a ghostly pallor. It's not hard to imagine what
dreams are invading Baddeley's fitful sleep. Flickering across
the TV is an evening replay of the first round of the Masters.
The prodigy was supposed to be there, strolling the fairways of
Huntingdale Golf Club with Sergio Garcia. Baddeley was so
looking forward to this first summit of wunderkinds that he
spent the three months leading up to the Masters taking private
Spanish lessons, just so he could welcome El Nino in his native
tongue. Instead Baddeley's father, Ron, did all the talking on
this day at Huntingdale, as he read a melodramatic press release
that began, "From the bedside of Aaron Baddeley." It announced
Aaron's withdrawal, and under questioning by the disappointed
Australian press, Ron conceded that his son was "shattered" by
the turn of events.
So the prodigy sleeps. From the glow of the TV it is barely
possible to make out the clutter in his room. On the wall
opposite the bed is a rack of a dozen autographed golf balls,
collected when Baddeley was a starry-eyed kid haunting the
Aussie Masters. Above the bed are framed portraits of his
idols--Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Nick
Price--who have watched over him since age 12, when golf hit him
like a virus. In the corner, behind a mountain of clothes, is a
picture of a beaming Baddeley holding the Aussie Open trophy. It
has not been deemed worthy of a place on the wall.
Eventually the prodigy will stumble out of bed, wearing nothing
but colorful boxers. For now the rest of the Baddeleys go about
their business at their ranch house on 10 pastoral acres in
Wonga Park, a suburb of Melbourne so removed from city life that
the roads have yellow caution signs emblazoned with the
silhouette of a kangaroo. Emma, a pixie of 10 years, is busy
tending to her palomino, Honey. Kate, 15 going on 25, is on the
phone, as usual. Ron is stoking the coals on the barbecue while
his wife, Jo-ann, pours the white wine and sets a lovely table
on the back deck, the better to enjoy this brilliant February
evening. Life hums along, the Masters be damned.
The prodigy sleeps. Superstardom will have to wait, at least for
a little while.
Aaron Baddeley was introduced to golf by his grandmothers, the
only people on either side of the family who played the game. A
year later, at 13, he had his first lesson with Dale Lynch, head
coach of the Victorian Institute of Sport, who was already
teaching many of Australia's top young golfers. "I want to be
the best player in the world, and I want to be on the U.S. Tour
when I'm 21," Baddeley said, by way of hello. "What do I have to
Thus began the golfing education of Aaron Baddeley. Though his
physical talents are self-evident, what makes Baddeley's story
unusual is that, with equal parts charm and determination, he
has worked to build relationships with the greats in the game as
if he were an ambitious undergrad trying to land a plum
internship. If Baddeley continues his ascension, he will surely
go down as the first golfer to have networked his way to the top.
To be sure, Baddeley was blessed with advantageous DNA,
combining the analytical, mechanical bent of his father with the
athleticism of his mother, a swimmer, tennis player and
competitive javelin thrower in her day. Ron grew up a grease
monkey in Australia, and in 1980 he and Jo-ann moved to Vermont
so he could serve as chief mechanic on Bill Alsup's Indy car.
Aaron was born across the border, in Lebanon, N.H., on March 17,
1981. Later that year Mario Andretti hired Ron as his crew
chief, and the Baddeleys moved to Indianapolis. The hard-driving
life with Andretti proved too intense for Ron's tastes, however,
and the family returned to Australia in 1983, soon settling into
a quiet existence in Wonga Park, with Ron opening his own auto
shop, Ultra Tune.
At 14, Aaron won the club championship of the Croydon Golf Club
and the next year was making star turns on larger stages. At the
1997 Victorian Open, Baddeley became the youngest player to make
a cut in an Australasian tour event, a 15-year-old who had been
playing the game all of three years. (That same year a
17-year-old Garcia won the Catalonian Open, and Tiger Woods, 21,
set the Masters on its ear.) Baddeley made his first splash on
these shores in July 1998, when he was medalist at the U.S.
Junior and runner-up by a shot at the Junior World in San Diego.
His parents borrowed $11,230 on their Visa card to finance the
A few months later Aaron, who had qualified for the Australian
Open, sent a fax to Norman's office requesting a practice round.
Where does a virtually unknown 17-year-old get the temerity to
ask the god of Australian golf for a blind date? "I've always
known I wanted to play against the best, and to beat the best,"
says Baddeley. "I just knew if I could ask someone like Greg
Norman a question or three or four or ten or twenty, it would be
a huge advantage for me as I prepare for the future."
Norman agreed to the practice round and afterward gave Baddeley
his private phone number and told him to call whenever he felt
like chatting, which has been often. "Aaron has a very mature
swing, but what I like even more is the head on his shoulders,"
says Norman. "He's down to earth and inquisitive. He wants to
know everything there is to know about succeeding at golf, and
he wants to know now. I like that."
In February 1999, Baddeley was paired with Gary Player at the
Greg Norman Invitational, and that was when the buzz began in
earnest. By then Baddeley was 6'1" and his game was built on
explosive power, a feathery touch around the greens and a
preternatural cool. After their round, Player faced the
Australian press, which for 10 years has been desperate to
anoint a successor to Norman, and raved about Baddeley in almost
blasphemous terms. "The best young player I ever saw was Jack
Nicklaus," Player said. "I think this young man--and I don't say
this lightly--has the ability Jack Nicklaus had at the same
age." Player, who turned pro when he was 17, was incredulous
when Baddeley spoke of remaining an amateur for a couple more
years. "What's the matter, don't you like money?" Player asked.
There are two words that have kept Baddeley from cashing in on a
pro career. "Justin Rose," Ron Baddeley says, evoking the name
of the English teen who turned pro after tying for fourth in the
1998 British Open, then crashed and burned on the European tour.
"I almost weep for him. If I had been his father, there is no
way I would have let him turn pro at 17. Whenever you have a
gifted young athlete, people have a fear of the parents pushing
too hard. We're quite the opposite. Jo-ann and I are trying to
hold Aaron back."
During the summer of 1999, Baddeley made the scene on the U.S.
amateur circuit and began taking baby steps toward justifying
Player's raves, finishing second at the Northeast Amateur,
making the semifinals at the Western Am and taking third place
at the Porter Cup. The highlight of the trip, however, came
while he was in Phoenix visiting a friend, who happened to know
a business associate of Phil Mickelson's. For months Baddeley
pestered his buddy to arrange a game with Mickelson, and his
persistence paid off--last June, Mickelson hosted Baddeley at
his home course, Grayhawk Golf Club, in Scottsdale. "Phil shot
71," says Baddeley, "and I shot 67. I took 40 bucks off of him.
He was not happy." Another friendship with an elite player was
As heady as the summer had been, Baddeley returned home
unsatisfied. In his biggest tournament of the trip--the U.S.
Amateur at Pebble Beach--he missed qualifying by a shot. He
spent the next months reshaping his swing.
Baddeley's stroke gelled just in time for November's Australian
Open, but as usual he left nothing to chance, sneaking out to
Royal Sydney a month in advance of the tournament for a pair of
practice rounds. The reconnaissance helped Baddeley get off to a
fast start, as he shot 67-68 to put himself within a stroke of
the halfway lead. It was on Saturday that he really showed some
bottle. Tied for the lead playing the 18th hole, he rolled in a
20-footer for birdie that put him in first all by himself, a
stroke ahead of Montgomerie and four others. "He wanted the
lead, and he wanted to be paired with Monty," says Ron Baddeley.
"Aaron knew that he was a very tough competitor and that it
would be excellent for his golfing education. Those are the
words he used. That's the way he thinks."
On the 7th hole of the final round Baddeley made a 20-footer for
eagle to forge a three-stroke lead. Shortly thereafter he
resumed humming tunes by his favorite band, the Australian
rockers Taxi Ride. "We sing all the time on the course," says
Dion Kipping, Baddeley's friend and caddie. "It helps us relax.
When Aaron started singing on the final round, I knew we were
What was striking about Baddeley's play at the Oz Open was how
routine it seemed. There was no fist-pumping and little emoting,
just a series of flawlessly executed shots and clutch putts. He
finished with a bloodless 69 (to Monty's 71), beating a
hard-charging Norman and Nick O'Hern by two strokes, although,
with his second-place tie, the Shark at least got the
consolation of a share of the $114,720 winner's check. Afterward
Baddeley said, "I knew I could win today. I played my best, and
it was good enough."
Others were more effusive. "This day a supernova emerged," said
Peter Thomson, the dean of Australian golf. "Baddeley has a
better swing action than either Tiger Woods or Sergio Garcia,
and he should prove himself the best."
In Palm Springs, Calif., for the Skins Game, Garcia stayed up
late into the night to watch the final round of the Aussie Open
on the Golf Channel, along with Mark O'Meara. "You better watch
out, Sergio, this kid is coming after you," O'Meara said.
"I look forward to it," Garcia replied.
What happens when you're 18 and a national champion? For
starters, your parents get two extra phone lines, a fax machine
and an E-mail account, in addition to a cell number, just to
deal with all the correspondence. Then the fun really begins. A
few weeks after his victory Baddeley heard from the manager of
Taxi Ride. The boys in the band had read that Baddeley was a fan
and wanted him to come to a gig in Surfer's Paradise, a town on
the Gold Coast. That's how Baddeley wound up on stage in the
middle of a concert, shaking a tambourine, among other things.
"I was on stage dancing in front of 3,000 screaming girls," he
says. He isn't complaining.
Baddeley also got a couple of other invitations--special
exemptions to next month's Masters and to the June 15-18 U.S.
Open. Ron and Jo-ann took out a $17,000 loan to get them through
the Open, and last week Ron sold Ultra Tune, freeing up time to
attend to his son's affairs as well as easing some of the
financial pressure. Though Bobby Jones's tournament had not
invited an otherwise ineligible amateur since 1975, it was the
Open invitation that raised eyebrows in the States. Even the
USGA's executive director, David Fay, conceded, "It was a bit
out of character."
In fact, the blue blazers were still smarting from having passed
over Garcia a year earlier, when he was the world's most
charismatic amateur. They didn't want to make the same mistake
twice. Baddeley, too, sees the parallels with Garcia, which is
why he had been so eager to pick El Nino's brain. When the flu
sabotaged their get-together at the Australian Masters, Baddeley
insisted that his father hand-deliver a letter to Garcia.
"Sergio and I are both boys in a man's world," says Aaron. "We
can have a great friendship because it's nice to be with someone
your own age. Who wants to hang out with a bunch of 30-year-olds
all the time?"
Baddeley will use the Masters and the Open as barometers to
determine whether he is ready to turn pro, just as Garcia tested
the waters in four majors in '98 and '99. (Garcia turned pro
after finishing as the low amateur in last year's Masters.) "A
top 10 in either major will show me that I'm good enough," says
If this sounds ambitious, consider his well-circulated quote
from the Australian Open: "If Tiger is the best player in the
world," said Baddeley, "then I've got to be better than Tiger.
Tiger's the benchmark, and I want to be better than the
benchmark." This kind of brashness led to headlines such as
BADDELEY'S BRAGGING ILL ADVISED in Australia, but Baddeley is
unmoved. "I wouldn't have said that if I didn't believe it was
possible," he says.
Even failing a top 10 at Augusta or Pebble Beach, Baddeley is
confident enough--and so dedicated to following his master
plan--that he'll almost certainly turn pro in September, after
representing Australia in the World Amateur Team Championship,
in Berlin. The timing will allow him to play a full slate on the
Australasian tour, which runs from November through February, as
a tuneup for his final destination, the PGA Tour. This week
Baddeley gets his first taste of the Tour, at the Honda Classic
(he has been staying at Norman's beach house in nearby Hobe
Sound, Fla.), and next week he's scheduled to play in the Bay
Hill Invitational. While in Orlando, Aaron and his father will
meet with Mark McCormack, the IMG founder, who no doubt already
envisions Baddeley joining the telegenic Garcia and Woods as
part of another Big Three, a 21st century global village edition.
Not surprisingly, Baddeley has been busy lining up practice
rounds for his great American adventure. At January's New
Zealand Open--Baddeley finished 35th, which he called "very
disappointing"--he pounced on Steve Williams, Woods's caddie, a
New Zealander who was home for a holiday. Under duress, Williams
said he would try to arrange a game for the Wednesday of Bay
Hill. "I look forward to asking Tiger a zillion questions," says
Baddeley's education will continue on Tuesday of Masters week,
when he is supposed to play with Norman and Price, two residents
of his wall of fame, with the fourth member of the group slated
to be either David Duval or Jack Nicklaus. "I'm sure one of them
will says yes because Greg is setting it up," says Baddeley.
Pause. "It's very helpful to have Greg as a friend."
Another Evening at the Baddeley home, another barbecue. It is
the day after the Australian Masters, and the prodigy is back at
full strength, thanks to a cornucopia of drugs and the goodwill
of Garcia, who extended his stay in Melbourne so they could hang
out for the day. Already Baddeley and Garcia have teed it up at
Kingston Heath, where Baddeley's golf turned out to be far
smoother than his Spanish. Now Garcia, his father, Victor, and
Garcia's agent, Robert Gutierrez, are the guests of honor on the
back deck. Once again Ron Baddeley is working the barbecue, this
time with a mountain of venison steaks. Jo-ann has prepared a
couple of dishes with vegetables from the family's garden. Aaron
and Sergio, with the endless energy of youth, are playing
D-O-N-K-E-Y on the backyard basketball court. Another friendship
has been born.
Soon it is time for dinner, and for a toast. Garcia raises a
glass. "Just as Seve has been like a big brother to me in
Europe," he says to Aaron, "I will be a big brother to you in
America." They drink to youth, and to the future, with all of
"even more is the head on his shoulders. He's down to earth."
"better than Tiger," says Baddeley. "Tiger's the benchmark."