Briny Baird tees off on the 3rd hole.
Briny Baird tees off on the 3rd hole. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

A triple-bogey beaches Baird's long-shot hopes

Unheralded Briny Baird's bid to follow Shaun Micheel and Todd Hamilton as a long-shot major champion saw him reach the top of the leaderboard with a front-nine 34. Then came a fateful tee shot on the par-3 17th hole.

HAVEN, Wis. (AP) -- The galleries came to the double dogleg fifth hole at the PGA Championship hoping to see Tiger Woods make a run at another major. Instead they got Briny Baird.

The golfers came to Whistling Straits expecting a copy of Carnoustie. They, too, got something else entirely.

But surprise does not always equal disappointment -- not with Baird and not with the golf course where he hopes to win his first PGA Tour event. They are both quirky and well-pedigreed, if not well-known, and both are making a name for themselves this weekend.

It was moving day Saturday in the year's final major, and Baird moved more than most. Starting the day one stroke back, Baird reached the top of the leaderboard with a 34 on the front nine before a triple-bogey on No. 17 left him at 5-under through 54 holes.

"I said, 'You can put yourself in position where they're going to have to come catch you,"' said Baird, who was tied for 11th and seven shots behind leader Vijay Singh. "I'm a little (upset) -- very (upset). But a lot of good stuff happened."

Baird doesn't draw the galleries that trail Woods wherever he goes, and those that did follow the penultimate group off the tee for the third round were probably more interested in seeing Ernie Els, the winner of 14 tour events. Baird is a non-winner who would be a no-name if he didn't have the odd one that his mother plucked from the book, "The Winds of War."

Baird's father, Butch, was himself a pro who won twice on the PGA Tour, but the two broke off what limited contact they had when his father -- already largely a stranger -- didn't call or send a gift on his granddaughter's birth. It is ironic, if not downright Freudian, that Baird uses his bag to call attention to missing children.

But Baird has said that his talent came from his father, and he is talented. He was a teammate of David Duval at Georgia Tech before transferring to Valdosta State and winning back-to-back NCAA Division II titles.

But Baird has yet to win in 147 PGA Tour events, including last year's PGA Championship, when he sat in fifth place after three rounds before shooting an 81 on Sunday.

So Baird didn't bother to celebrate when he moved to the top of the leaderboard on Saturday. At the time, he was sideways between the fifth green and a pond when Singh, a group behind, bogeyed No. 4 to drop to 8-under; Baird couldn't sink a 10-footer for birdie but made par to remain at 9-under.

Baird improved to 10-under with a birdie on No. 6, but Singh, Els and Justin Leonard soon joined him and then passed him. Baird dropped a stroke with a bogey on the par-4 15th and fell off the leaderboard entirely with a triple-bogey on No. 17.

Baird was on the tee when a cheer came up on the 16th green that may have caused him to drive into a bunker. He couldn't reach the green with his second shot and found himself hard against the railroad ties that keep the putting surface from falling into Lake Michigan.

He had to chip away from the pin to get a clear line, and then he three-putted from 80 feet for a 6.

"You can't hit it left," he said disgustedly. "You have all the way to the clubhouse on the right and you're probably going to make no worse than a four. "I hit a bad shot."

Els was having some trouble of his own.

He was within two strokes of the lead when he bogeyed the 15th to fall to 9-under. He dropped another stroke on the 18th and finished the day three behind Justin Leonard and tied for third with Phil Mickelson, Chris Riley, Stephen Ames and Darren Clarke.

But Els already has three majors on his resume to go with his 30 worldwide victories, and a smooth swing that earned him the nickname "The Big Easy."

No one would imitate Baird's motion.

When he addresses a ball on the tee, he appears to be getting his bearings, wiggling the club behind the ball and bringing the head back a foot where he pauses; just when you expect him to abort his backswing and begin again, he continues his stroke.

On the green, Baird is an even bigger oddity.

Holding his putter cross-handed -- right hand up, left hand down -- he stands with his left foot a pace ahead of his right as if he is going to walk past the putting line. It's a technique he picked up about four years ago when his coach tried to keep him from moving backward during his stroke.

"If you stand on one foot and your balance isn't perfect, you're obviously going to fall over, and I darned near fell over," Baird explained this week. "He said, 'Hit some putts on one foot for a while,' and that drill actually became reality after a while. ... I fought getting out of it, and finally just said, 'The heck with it, let's just putt that way."'

And that's why Baird would be the perfect golfer to take the title at a course as eccentric as he is.

With the wind whipping off the water and the course playing 7,514 yards -- the longest ever in a major -- the players feared par would be as distant as the far shore of Lake Michigan. Built on a former army base and designed by Pete Dye to resemble the links of Ireland and Scotland, the Straits Course, the players soon learned, isn't that at all.

It may look like a links, but it isn't one, really; the ground is too soft to allow the bump-and-run style favored on the British Isles. It is a tough but fair test of golf that is getting rave reviews from the players and could be in the rotation for years to come.

Sometimes you go looking for Royal Troon and you find Whistling Straits. Sometimes you go looking for Tiger or Phil and you find Briny Baird.

And that's OK, too.

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