Geoff Smith | From the Baseline: PGA Tour rookie Chris Baker has growing fan club in Berkshire County
When Chris Baker heads out onto the course during a PGA Tour event, his father, Jim, is watching and rooting him on, usually from his home in Indiana.
But in the Berkshires, there's a growing group of Chris Baker fans in the Adams-Cheshire area.
That's because Jim is a 1969 Adams Memorial High School graduate. Jim Baker still has family in the Berkshires, including his brother Tom in Dalton, and his friends from high school continue to keep up with Chris Baker's exploits on the Tour.
Jim's journey to Indiana and starting a family began in Cheshire. After graduating, Jim went into the Air Force from 1971-74, before returning home to attend North Adams State College. From there, Jim pursued a career in the ski industry — he got big into skiing in the Air Force — working as an assistant ski school director, a head ski school director, a Level 3 Certified Instructor, and an employee for Salomon North America, among other things. While Jim pursued all of his skiing journeys, he was also raising a family in Brownstown, Indiana, where they lived on a 9-hole course at Hickory Hills Golf Club.
Chris started playing golf at the age of 5. By the time he was 12, Jim knew his son had a special gift on the course.
"I played to about a five handicap," Jim said when I reached him by phone on Friday, "and when he was 12 years old, he beat me for the first time on our little 9-hole course, and after that I never beat him again.
"So once he knew he had my number, that was it, and that's basically when I realized."
Chris went on to be a state champion in high school, before playing for four years at Iowa State. He advanced to play one year on the European Tour, before returning to the states and joining the Web.com — now the Korn Ferry — Tour as he pursued a PGA Tour card.
Chris acquired his PGA Card last year, by finishing fourth at the Tour Championship at Victoria National Golf Club. That was a transcendent moment in the Baker household.
"The week that he finished fourth at Victoria National and got his card was a really special week," Jim said. "And then making that seven-footer on the 18th hole to secure his card, it's just so much pressure and he did it."
Chris isn't just an accomplished golfer. Per his dad, Chris is also into snow sports — he rides a snowboard — and he played about every sport a kid could play growing up. Simply put, Chris is an athlete.
Jim recalled a moment from when Chris was six, and the family traveled to New Zealand to ski the Tasman Glacier. The youngest a skier is supposed to be to go on the trek is 12. Chris was half of that age.
"I told them my background, that I was an examiner and a fully-certified instructor, and they allowed him on the plane," Jim said. "And he was the youngest one to ever ski the Tasman Glacier."
Chris' journey to the PGA Tour has been a long one. He is in his rookie PGA Tour campaign now, but spent 11 years on various tours trying to earn his card. Chris came close several times before the breakthrough.
"I know one time he was in Portland on the last tournament of the year," Jim recalled. "And he needed a third-place finish. He was on the 17th hole, and the hole photography group was watching him, and just as he was at the top of the backswing, the camera man decided to get out of the cart ... and he flinched and hit it into the woods and finished fourth."
The years of grinding wore on Chris. When he earned his PGA Card in Sept. 2019, he told "Golf Digest" that after an event in 2013 "I wasn't broke, but my bank account was close to single digits. It was almost time to move on and find something else to do."
Thankfully, Chris stuck with it. As he recalled in the "Golf Digest" story, Chris won an event the following week after debating hanging it up. That $20,000 check helped him keep the dream alive.
Now that Chris is on the PGA Tour, he's making even better memories. Playing in the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines two weeks ago, Chris Baker found himself playing in a group with Tiger Woods.
"[Chris] said he didn't get much sleep that night," Jim said. "He woke up at 1 or 1:30 in the morning and just could not get back to sleep. He said Tiger was just phenomenal to play with. They really had a good round, but Chris didn't play up to his standards and he had a little bit of trouble with the driver, but it looks like he's got it corrected."
Jim says "corrected," because on Friday, Chris was in the lead for a short while at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Jim used to caddy for his son, but now he gets to watch from the sideline. Jim said that he prefers to watch in person — "It's just so much more nerve-wracking watching him on TV" — along with his wife and Chris' mom, Becky. Chris also has a sister, Cassie, that is an optometrist in Colorado. Chris' adventures on the Tour have taken the family to places like Hawaii for the Sony Open, and down to the Dominican Republic in March.
"It's hard going in two different directions, but both of our children have done extremely well and we are proud of both of them," Jim said. "We love to ski and we love to watch him play golf."
When Chris is playing, Jim says he gets emails and Facebook messages from friends and family in the Berkshires. Rick Berti, a classmate of Jim's, was the one who tipped me off about this story in the first place.
"There's a lot of people from back that way that are following him," Jim said. "It's pretty amazing."
In our conversation, Jim talked about the countless hours Chris has put in to make the PGA Tour. From early gym sessions, to full work days on the golf course honing his craft, Chris has had to work to make it to the big show. But that's part of what has made this journey so rewarding for everyone in the family.
"It's a lot of hard work, but he's dedicated and he's made that choice," Jim said. "It's just been a tremendous journey for him."
UPDATE: Chris Baker placed 38th overall at the weekend's Pebble Beach Pro-Am in California. He shot a 69-64-76-76 with two eagles and 14 birdies to finish the tournament at 2-under par.
Geoff Smith can be reached at email@example.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.
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