Lake Wylie, SC – Through five holes of the final round of the eGolf Tour's River Hills Classic, Chris Baker of Brownstown, IN had done little to make anyone think he would contend for the title in the $235,000 event. Then something rather peculiar happened.
After converting a 7-foot par putt on the uphill, par-3 fifth, Baker was putting his clubs and his putter back in the bag when his putter completely missed the aforementioned bag and slammed straight down onto pavement, with the head making the clanking noise that even Scotty Cameron himself loathes.
"I dropped my putter on the concrete, and things just changed after that," said Baker. "It was an accident, but it happened to create some great putting."
The odd miss of the bag sparked four birdies in a seven-hole stretch that would later be iced by two closing birdies to give Baker his first eGolf Tour title and the winner's check for $35,000.
At the start of the day, Baker was in a four-way tie for the lead with Tommy Biershenk, David Robinson and Derek Oakey at 9-under for the tournament. In logjam situations, it is often the player who gets off to a hot start that steals the show.
That player was not Chris Baker.
A 15-foot birdie putt on the par-4 first was left 8 feet short and resulted in an unexpected three-putt to start his round.
A follow-up birdie at the short par-4 second recovered what was otherwise a lost stroke at No. 1, but it wasn't until the clutch par at No. 5 that his round took a turn for the good.
"That was an easy putt at No. 5, but it helped to keep me going," said Baker.
Ensuing birdies at 6, 8 and 10 allowed the former Iowa State Cyclone golfer to turn in a tie for the lead with Robinson, and then keep pace with him following matching birdies at No. 10.
A Robinson bogey at 11 was followed by a Baker birdie at 12, and all of a sudden the soft-spoken Midwesterner had the tournament lead to himself.
While Baker was seizing the lead, tour newcomer Derek Oakey (playing in the penultimate pairing) was making a move of his own. Birdies at 10, 12 and 13 took the Atlanta native to 4-under on his round and in a tie for the lead with Baker.
The key to the tournament would be the downhill, par-3 17th.
Oakey, arriving at the tee some 15 minutes prior to Baker, hit a poor tee shot and left the arduous one-shotter with a bogey on his card. The untimely mishap dropped Oakey one shot behind Baker.
After a near birdie miss at 16, Baker came to the tee at 17 with a one-shot lead and one score in mind – birdie.
"I had the lead again coming into 17 and choked down a 5-iron from 210 yards to 15 feet," said Baker. "The shot was perfect, thankfully I was able to make the putt."
A stout birdie at 17 gave Baker a two-shot cushion coming into the short par-4 18th, where a flawless tee shot left him 97 yards to the pin – or in his words, perfect lob wedge distance.
"With the new grooves, my lob wedge doesn't spin that much," said Baker, citing the USGA's newly implemented groove policy. "Downhill, downwind, it was the perfect club."
Baker's approach landed roughly six inches from the cup on a back tier, and stayed there after eventually nestling down to 6 feet behind the hole. When he calmly rolled the winning putt in, Baker showed little to no emotion on the green – thus emitting the thought that he knew it was his time to win.
"I hit it awesome on the back nine," Baker said after his round. "I don't think I left the flag with an iron shot at all on the back. I hit it great and was able to make some putts coming down the stretch."
Baker was admittedly nervous starting his day, but an amicable pairing with Biershenk and Robinson helped to calm some tight nerves.
"I was a little nervous going out, but I started to get more comfortable as the round went on," Baker said. "David (Robinson) and I were having a good time together, so that helped to slow everything down."
After three missed cuts to start the season, Baker finished second in the tour's Golf in Morocco Classic in March, thus boosting a little faith in a game that had let him down following a cold winter spent practicing at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia.
"Confidence, it's all about confidence. Just getting off to a good start helps so much in these events," said Baker, who admitted the brutal months of December and January left him ill-prepared for the start of the season.
Baker spent the week prior to the event in the country of Morocco after winning one of the tour's eight exemptions into the European Challenge Tour's Moroccan Golf Classic, which was postponed during tournament week after the volcano in Iceland wreaked havoc on all European-based travel. Nevertheless, Baker and the other seven players were treated like royalty during their stay – something that helped ease any possible jetlag heading into River Hills.
"I was pretty tired after flying home, but having the weekend to catch up certainly helped," Baker said. "By the start of the week, I was fine."
Oakey wound up three shots behind Baker at 12-under 276 and earned $18,330 for his runner-up effort. The former Georgia State standout joined Baker as the only players in the field to card each of their four rounds at 71 or better for the week.
Finishing alone in third was former PGA TOUR player Matt Davidson of Chapel Hill, NC.
Davidson was even-par through 11 holes in his final round before recording birdies on five of his last seven holes to post 11-under 277 in the clubhouse. The finish was his second straight top-10 effort and his first top-5 since clinching the season-ending Tour Championship in 2009 at famed Pine Needles Resort. Davidson earned $14,405 for his efforts this week.
Jon Kennedy, David Robinson and Tommy Biershenk each tied for fourth, six shots behind Baker at 9-under 279 for the event. Each player earned $9,599 on the week.
Kennedy was in contention for much of the round and holed a bunker shot to get to 11-under for the event on No. 16. At the time, he was only one shot back of the leaders. Standing on the 17th tee, Kennedy hooked his tee shot over the green and out-of-bounds en route to a crushing double-bogey on one of the course's most difficult holes.