Ladies and Gentleman, the Weekend
Mark Baldwin needed a late birdie if he wanted to play the weekend at the Barracuda. Then he delivered a tee shot to remember
By Ryan French
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Mark Baldwin and I were standing on the 16th tee at Old Greenwood on Friday, directly on the cut line at the Barracuda Championship. We needed a birdie badly, and the downhill 396-yard, par-4 offered our last good opportunity.
“Sorry, guys,” Mark told Joel Stalter and Preston Stanley, the other two players in our group. ”The wind died. I don’t think I can get there, but I am just going to wait now.” Soon after, Mark smoked one down the left side. We saw the ball take a massive bounce to the right, but because he was playing to a blind green, we couldn’t tell where it came to a stop. Then we heard a shout from the green that echoed up the fairway: “All right, Mark Baldwin!” That’s when we knew it was good.
Mark two-putted for birdie, and after a relatively stress-free par at the par-3 17th, finished with a bogey. We got in on the number. For the second straight year, we are playing the weekend at the Barracuda. This time, getting to Saturday was anything but easy.
Mark had struggled in the first round on Thursday and finished with zero points in the modified Stableford system. We started the second day in a tie for 109th, and because we played in the penultimate group in the afternoon wave, we slid further down the board before we had even teed off. The objective: Find a way to climb into the top 65. To say we needed a fast start would be an understatement. But in this format, an eagle can catapult you up the leaderboard. After an opening par, we came to the par-5 2nd hoping to make some magic.
A perfect drive left us 276 yards to a back-left hole location. Factoring in the 10 percent adjustment for the elevation and a breeze that was whipping downwind, we debated between a 6- and 7-iron. I talked Mark into the shorter club. Talk about the wrong call. When the ball was in mid-flight, we both knew it was going to come up short. Like, really short. The ball stopped 30 yards shy of the green, in the rough behind a bunker that was guarding the pin.
With the bunker lurking and the green sloping away, this was a challenging flop shot. That didn’t stop me from telling Mark, “I’m not taking the fucking putter out of the bag. We need to make one.” As soon as the ball left the clubface, it looked good. It landed softly, and Mark raised his arm. Then the ball disappeared into the hole. The eagle we so desperately needed had landed. Five points. “Let’s go!” Mark yelled as we high-fived. Like that, we had gone from somewhere in the 120s to squarely on the cut line.
Mark parred the next three holes, and we came to the par-5 6th looking to collect at least two more points. We had hit 3-wood every time we played the hole, but I pushed for the driver. Considering how the wind was howling in our face, I didn’t think he could reach the water. Mark agreed and hit a perfect one.
From there he hit a 6-iron that was a foot from leaving us a 5-footer for eagle. But the ball hung up on the fringe. It left a straightforward chip that Mark executed perfectly for a tap-in birdie. For the first time all week, we were inside the cut line.
I have said many times that Mark and I don’t talk about the cut number when we’re on the course. We don’t need to; we both know what it is. How can you not? Huge electronic scoreboards are scattered around the course at a PGA Tour event, and the cut number is featured prominently in the top right corner. For a player with no guaranteed starts the rest of the year, the pressure to make the cut is immense. We were going to be squarely under the gun for the next 12 holes.
Perhaps the most critical shot of the day came at the par-3 7th. Mark and I decided on a smooth 8-iron to the back-left pin. Water guards the front of the green, and anything even a couple of paces short will roll back into the pond. As soon as the ball left his clubface, I felt a pit in my stomach. The ball hit just above the hazard line and trickled back into the water. Mark didn’t say a word on the way to the green. After a drop on the bank, he was looking at a problematic chip that he left about 8 feet short. We were suddenly staring at one of those momentum-killing situations. In the Stableford, a double bogey or worse is minus three points; a bogey is just a one-point penalty. The ball went in dead center.
A bogey at the 8th and a par at the 9th left us at plus-5 and two off the cut line. Following the round, Mark said on the podcast he had prepared for the Barracuda for six weeks, with long sessions on the range and visualizing nightly the shots he needed to make. His preparation was about to be put to the test.
After pars at 10 and 11, we came to the par-5 12th, the easiest hole on the course, again needing to make something happen. Towering trees guard the right side of the green. Because the fairway slopes to the right, getting to the left side for a clear shot to the green is difficult. Mark smoked his drive, but the ball ended up in the middle of the fairway. He tried to cut an 8-iron around the trees, but it didn’t cut enough and finished in the greenside bunker. The sand shot was perfect, and the tap-in birdie got us to plus-7 and back again on the cut line. It’s exactly what you have to do in this format. Mark amassed nine points on the three par-5s. It was quite the turnaround from Thursday, when we played the par-5s in one over, with two bogeys and a birdie.
Solid iron shots on the next three holes produced fantastic opportunities, but Mark couldn’t convert the putts. As we walked to the 16th green, somebody in the gallery told me the cut had moved to 8 points. Plain and simple, we needed another birdie.
Even as we crested the hill after the tee shot, I couldn’t see the ball. But Mark could. He turned to me and said, “How about that?” In fact, the ball was on the green, just beyond the front bunker — 390 yards to 25 feet for eagle while sitting just outside the cut line. “Considering the circumstances,” Mark said later, “it was one of the best shots I hit in my career.” It was one of those shots he had undoubtedly envisioned during all of that tireless preparation.
After the two-putt for birdie and the par at 17, we came to the 18th needing no worse than a bogey to make the weekend. Mark had hit it perfectly on the back nine; we needed him to do it for one more hole. But as he stood on the tee, he had a flashback to something another player had told us on Thursday. The player had talked about “hitting it in the shit” on 18. Mark said he should have backed off the shot, but he didn’t. Sure enough, the ball headed left.
We didn’t see it finish, but a volunteer hustled across the fairway to help locate Stanley’s ball. So we assumed he had at least found ours. We would discover it in a deep fairway bunker. Mark and I started a long discussion. He had about 145 yards to the green and believed he could get a pitching wedge over the lip. We discussed hitting sand wedge out into the fairway. Mark finally said, “I can get it to the green. Let’s hit the wedge.”
As he pulled the wedge back, it was the most nervous I have ever been as a caddie. If he didn’t clear the bunker and the ball stuck in the lip, our week was probably over. All of Mark’s work would have been for nothing. Mark put a perfect swing on it, and the ball cleared the lip and stopped between two greenside bunkers. As the ball settled, I let out a massive sigh of relief. “I’m glad that’s over,” Mark said as he walked out of the bunker.
The chip shot was pretty straight-forward for a tour pro. Even makeable. But with the cut line dangling over your head, nothing is easy, and Mark flat-out flubbed the shot, barely reaching the green. It left a 15-footer that Mark needed to two-putt. “You have stroked it well all day,” I told Mark as I handed him his cleaned ball. “Just another one of those, and let’s go play the weekend.” The putt leaked right but left a tap-in for bogey. We had made the weekend at the Barracuda Championship.
After handshakes, Mark and I hugged, and I told him how happy I was for him. When you have played professionally for 16 years and made only three cuts on the PGA Tour, you soak up these moments. He thanked me for my help, and you could see the pride in his smile. What a moment!
Now it’s moving day. Let’s make something happen.