Monday Musings: Aug. 2, 2021
How Mark Baldwin earned a spot in the Barracuda Championship
By Ryan French
It was 2:30 on Monday morning. Mark Baldwin had finally checked into his hotel and climbed into bed. Our 7 o’clock wake-up call was coming soon. Neither of us had ever seen the course. The odds weren’t in our favor.
Baldwin is 135th in Korn Ferry Tour points. And with the season winding down, he basically needs a win to move inside the coveted top 75. So he decided to try his luck at the PGA Tour Monday for the Barracuda in Truckee, Calif. If he missed, he would head to Utah for the KFT event.
He won’t be going to Utah.
On Sunday, Mark’s wife, Sarah, woke up feeling pretty sick, so Mark moved his flight from Phoenix to that night. He considered not making the trip but decided at the last minute to head to the airport. His flight was delayed a few times, and he didn’t arrive until after midnight. Making it worse was the fact the rental car place was only open until midnight. Luckily someone had stayed, but the process took a long time. He got to his hotel room at about 1:45 a.m. on Monday.
That morning, Mark and I met in the lobby, grabbed a bagel and headed to Hidden Valley Golf Course outside Reno, Nev. We had a 9:39 tee time with Stephen Stallings Jr. and University of Arizona sophomore Sam Sommerhauser.
The 1st hole is a straightforward par-5. Mark made a short putt for birdie, and we were off. He made another birdie on the 2nd after a wedge that stopped three feet from the hole. We turned in 31.
At dinner on Monday night, Mark and I talked about the significance of making that putt on 9. “I get quiet when I’m nervous,” he said, “and I remember not talking right then.” I tried my best to keep my own emotions in check and keep Mark calm. We then hit a bit of a lull and played the next five holes in 1 over. We arrived at the drivable par-4 15th knowing we needed a special finish. Mark’s drive went over the green of the 356-yard hole. (Yes, you read that right. Mark is really long, and the elevation adds another 10 to 15 percent.) Mark took a drop off of a drain, which left him a pretty straightforward pitch. Unfortunately, he caught it too well, and the ball trickled over the green. As we discussed his third, neither one of us said it, but we both knew he needed to make it. He struck the shot perfectly. It slowly broke to the right and fell in the hole. We were still alive.
On the par-4 16th, I suggested we hit it up the left side of the fairway, but Mark hooked his tee shot, and we were left with his most difficult shot of the day. We were in long grass and behind some tree branches. We had 118 yards, and despite the low-hanging branches, Mark decided low was his best option. He took out an 8-iron, and with a half swing, he hit a low runner to the front of the green. The difficulty of that shot can’t be overstated. When the ball settled on the green, Mark laughed, knowing he couldn’t do that again with 10 chances. A two-putt par closed the door a bit, but it was still open a crack.
On the 17th, we discussed hitting a 9- or an 8-iron before settling on the 8, and Mark hit a great shot. With a blind pin, though, we couldn’t see where the ball finished. We walked up to discover the ball was just three feet away. The birdie got us to 6 under and with a shot.
The par-5 18th was reachable, but with just an 8-iron in, Mark came up short, leaving a delicate chip over the fringe to a back left hole location. Again, although we didn’t talk about it, we thought we might need to make it to get through. He pinched the ball perfectly, and it nearly went in, hitting the pin and settling a foot or so away. The tap-in birdie left Mark with a seven-under 65.
As we walked to the scoring area, Mark said, “I think it’s one short.” I agreed but added, “Let’s just wait and see.”
When Mark turned in his score, he was in third place, and with about half the field still on the course, his “one short” comment seemed spot on.
The wait at a Monday qualifier is brutal. We ordered lunch, and although we didn’t talk about it, I refreshed my phone constantly. Mark tried his best not to watch as the scores came. The course was typically closed on Mondays, so the restaurants there weren’t open. We did, however, find an open door to a conference room and settled in there. My colleague Laz Versalles left to pick us lunch we had ordered from a restaurant. We waited.
And we waited. One of the guys sitting with us told us to look at scores again. An 8-under and a 7-under had come in. Now the best we could hope for was a playoff.
The scores continued to trickle in. When we saw a group go to scoring, we would refresh to see if anyone had topped the 65 needed for the playoff. No one had, so Mark and I headed to the putting green. Mark called Sarah and then began to putt. Then we headed to the range to loosen up. After about 10 balls, a member of the PGA section running the event informed us the playoff would begin on the 1st hole. Mark and Justin Warren, an Aussie who played collegiately at Arkansas Little Rock, would compete for the last of four spots in the Barracuda Championship.
The playoff didn’t last long, as Warren missed a tap-in that essentially ended things. When he missed it, I stood stunned; I looked at Mark, who held his hand over his mouth. It was so jarring that I talked to Mark about getting locked in on his putt. It was tough to watch.
Mark’s pitching wedge approach had left him a 17-footer for eagle (525-yard par-5s at elevation result in pitching wedges in), and after Justin’s miss, we now had two putts to claim the fourth and final spot. He left his first putt just short and tapped in for the win.
We shook hands with Warren, not knowing what to say. After he walked off, I gave Mark a huge hug. “Fuck, yeah!” I yelled again and again. Mark put his putter away, and we kept slapping five and hugging. This will be Mark’s third PGA Tour event in his 15-year career. It was a special moment to share with him, because as he said, “You never know when it will happen again.”
A few players who had stayed to watch the playoff came over with some beers, and we stood on the green and drank them. “This is one of the best drinks I’ve ever tasted,” Mark said. Then we headed toward the clubhouse as Mark called Sarah.
Next came the logistical problems a Monday can create. Mark called to withdraw from the Korn Ferry event in Utah. I worked with Laz to find Mark a hotel room for the night and then the week. Mark called a friend to get help extending the car rental. All the while, Mark’s phone was lighting up with texts and calls as he tried unsuccessfully to keep up. We slowly got everything sorted out.
It was such an amazing moment, Mark is a friend, and it is great to see him get into a PGA Tour event. Although Mark was tired and would have preferred to sleep in, we headed to the course at 7:30 Tuesday morning. After registration, we planned to head out for 18. More updates to come!
(The last time I caddied for Mark, I wrote an article about what it’s like to miss the cut. Read it here)