Baddeley falls hard, but silences doubters in defeat

Badds is good. Real good.

If there was any doubt about Aaron Baddeley -- who showed so much promise as an Australian amateur but had a hard time finding his way in the pro game -- it was erased this weekend at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Baddeley didn't win. Actually, he probably feels he let one get away Sunday. He hit just eight greens in regulation, only four fairways. His swing was off, and perhaps that had something to do with the menacing figure who played alongside him. The way he's been playing lately, Ernie Els would make anyone a bit nervous.

But Baddeley never went away, finally falling on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff when Els holed a 55-foot birdie putt. Baddeley had extended the tournament to overtime when he holed a 12-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole.

Other than his choice of purple plaid pants on Sunday, there was much to like about Baddeley.

"He's definitely a future star out there,'' said Els, 33, the three-time major championship winner who became the first PGA Tour player in 14 years to start the season with consecutive victories. "I know it is disappointing but he is going to win a lot of tournaments.''

Baddeley, 21, is the youngest of 29 rookies on the PGA Tour this year. He was attempting to become the rare player who wins his first start as a tour member. Garrett Willis did it in 2001. Before that, Robert Gamez did it in 1990.

But Baddeley is no rookie in terms of experience. He had stared down big names before, knocking off Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Robert Allenby and Sergio Garcia in winning the Australian Open as an amateur in 1999, defending the title a year later and then capturing Norman's Holden International in 2001.

But in 21 previous PGA Tour events, spots given him through exemptions due to his previous success at home in Australia, Baddeley looked overmatched. He never finished higher than 44th, and missed a slew of cuts. In the fall of 2001, he went to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, where he couldn't make the big tour but settled for the Nationwide Tour.

"It was a blessing in disguise,'' said Baddeley, who finished 10th on the Nationwide money list to earn a PGA Tour card for 2003. "To play on the Nationwide Tour last year where I could still improve and work on my game instead of having the pressure of being out here on the main tour ... I always had confidence I could get back to where I was and even better again. There was never a doubt in my mind.''

Gone are the days when players get their seasoning on the PGA Tour. You better be ready to play when you make the big time, or you'll be left behind. With the Nationwide Tour, college golf programs, a slew of mini-tours, Europe, Asia, Australia. ... great players are coming from everywhere, ready to go.

Baddeley's performance was impressive to Els, who said "I couldn't shake him.''

"He's definitely not scared,'' Els said. "If he feels he's playing well he feels he can beat any field ... He's a big-league player. I think Tiger Woods was 20 or 21 when he started beating the hell out of us. He's probably feeding off all the positives from the other young players. I don't see him backing down.''

Baddeley won $486,000, all about assuring himself of retaining his PGA Tour card -- no small feat for a rookie. A victory would have given him a two-year exemption beyond this season, but that is likely to be a moot point very soon. Maybe Baddeley gets that victory this week in Phoenix.

"He's a good young player,'' said fellow Aussie Allenby. "Got a good swing, very confident. You'll see a lot of him this year.''

Good for Badds -- as long as he leaves those pants in the closet.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com