Bold front gives Baker-Finch victory 29 on first nine is key for Australian


SOUTHPORT, England -- Ian Baker-Finch said he felt "on top of the world," a funny place for an Australian to be.

Baker-Finch won the 120th British Open golf tournament yesterday, shooting a 66 that kept him two strokes ahead of countryman Mike Harwood and a quartet of Americans following on their heels.

A stunning front nine of 29 at Royal Birkdale ended the suspense prematurely, leaving the leader with little else to do but play safely. As soon as Baker-Finch bogeyed the 10th hole, he became more cautious and parred the next six, determined not to unravel on the final day of the Open the way he had twice before.

Asked whether he ever had visualized himself turning the first nine holes in 29, Baker-Finch replied: "The best visualizer in the world couldn't have visualized that."

One golfer yesterday, Paul Mayo, needed 10 shots on one hole. Baker-Finch did not need 30 for nine.

In warm, clear weather, golfers scorched the course. Fred Couples shot a 64 and tied Mark O'Meara for third place. Jodie Mudd went one better, crafting a 63 that tied the tournament record.

Mudd made eight birdies and shared fourth place with Bob Tway and Ireland's Eamonn Darcy at 277, five shots behind the winner.

But Baker-Finch was not about to be caught. He birdied the second hole, third, fourth, sixth and seventh.

O'Meara, his friend and neighbor in the Bay Hill subdivision of Orlando, Fla., was partnered with Baker-Finch but unable to keep up. There was nothing the matter with O'Meara's 69, but he shook his head appreciatively and said: "It doesn't make much difference when the other guy's out there going birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie."

O'Meara had another problem -- his painful back injury was exacerbated by spectators repeatedly pounding him on the back in encouragement between holes. He also was jostled near the 18th tee and accidentally knocked to the ground.

"Mark was lucky to finish the round," Baker-Finch said.

This was the first major championship for Baker-Finch, 30, a bespectacled, 6-foot-4, painstakingly deliberate plodder of a player who has become part of golf's Australian revolution. Four of the top 14 finishers were Aussies, including Baker-Finch and Harwood, who were childhood rivals.

But the strong finish by the four Americans who came next sent a message to Bernard Gallacher, the captain of the European team in the upcoming Ryder Cup, who conjectured before the British Open that no American here would place among the top five.

It was beginning to look as though nobody from any country would be able to challenge Baker-Finch once he put five shots between himself and the field after six holes. Then Couples made a run at him, and later Harwood, who was inconspicuously in contention the entire tournament.

Having shot a 64 the day before, Baker-Finch never missed a beat. He sank birdie putts of 12, 10, 6, 6 and 15 feet during yesterday's first seven holes, as everyone from his caddie, Pete Bender, to O'Meara watched in amazement.

Bender, who caddied for victorious Greg Norman in this tournament five years ago, said: "Ian just finesses you to death and kills you with that putter. He's like a king cobra."

Said O'Meara: "I thought he was out to shoot 59."

But Baker-Finch was not about to flirt with danger. He had been the leader after three rounds back in 1984, in his first Open, before completely going to pieces. And a year ago, a 64 put him in excellent position to challenge Nick Faldo for the championship, but he triple-bogeyed the opening hole.

"It's nice to be talking to you on Sunday for a change," Baker-Finch said this time. "I feel on top of the world. This is the most special event of my life. Just to play in this tournament is a big thrill, but to win it is a dream. I'm in dreamworld right now."

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