Jess Baker reflects on her first national title at the age of 14 and sets out her plans for the future with Dean Bailey
Jess Baker catapulted herself into the national spotlight by winning the Midland Under 16 Girls Championship in April – competing among a field with many older players – and she’s already set her sights on the rest of the season.
Returning to her home club, Gosforth Park Ladies, following her first national title win at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire, Jess admits the attention following her win has been a little bit of a shock.
“It’s been exciting, but I don’t want to get too hung up on it,” she says, sitting alongside her father Steve at the Park just two weeks after her win.
Jess credits her first taste of leading a national event, at the English U14 Girls Championship last summer – where she finished in seventh place following a tough closing stretch in the final round, as a big part of claiming her first national title within just 12 months.
“Playing in the English Girls’ last year, I went into the lead and talking to England Golf before the final round, and knowing how big the event was so early in my golfing career, got to me. I unravelled on the back nine, got in a bit of a tizz and didn’t really know how to react,” she admits.
“I feel so much more experienced now and having done that meant I knew what to do in the final round this time.”
At Hawkstone, Jess returned scores of 81, 75 and 76 including a final round back nine of one under-par, to beat long-term leader Mia Eales-Smith from Lindrick Golf Club by one shot.
“I was one behind going into the final round and played with Mia. I fell to two behind in the first eight holes but I knew I preferred the back nine and that I could score on it so I had a chance.”
Jess birdied the ninth and 10th to catch back up with the Mia before cementing her position with tactical play down the stretch.
“My goal was to make pars and I played to find each fairway then the green. I tried to forget about where I was and just enjoy the moment. Last year I wouldn’t have done that and may not have performed as well without having learned how to relax and enjoy it all rather than worrying about my golf.
“I focussed on my breathing and just tried to stay in control of what I could and let everything else happen around me. The main thing was staying focussed and happy,” she explains.
As well as competing in national events Jess is part of the Northumberland County girls’ and ladies’ teams, and is about to take her grade seven exams in piano and violin.
“I took a couple of days off to relax once I got home then got back on the driving range.
“We’ve played a county match since and I got our only win alongside Rosie Belsham. I’ve got some GCSE exams coming up before I play the big events this summer.”
Having picked up golf with her grandmother and father at the Park aged 10, Jess’ progression to an elite player has gone quickly. From getting her first handicap of 36 and being mentored by Carol Mair she has progressed to a handicap of four and has been part of the England Under 16 Regional Development Squad since she was 12. She has also recently received the Lee Westwood Scholarship from Close House for 2017.
“I’ve been part of the county and England systems for a while now and I’ve got loads of friends in those squads. We play a lot of golf together and get loads of experience and support from the coaches and experienced players.
“We keep in touch a lot and see each other all the time. The girls sent me loads of messages following the win and Rosie did well with a top five finish at Hawkstone too. Being part of a big group of girls my age makes it really good fun.”
Coached by Matfen Hall’s JJ Vallely and Hexham’s Andy Paisley, Jess practises every day as well as staying on top of schoolwork, her music and her fitness programme.
“It’s busy but I’m really enjoying my golf. My diary is all set out for this year and it’s going to be really busy this summer – I’ll be spending a lot of time travelling with my dad too which we always make good fun.
“The English and Scottish Girls will be really good events this year and I love going to County Match Week.”
Further ahead, Jess is hoping to head to college in the US on a golf scholarship – though she’s got a long time to prepare with her final GCSE exams still more than a year away.
“I love playing big events and want to keep pushing myself to improve – it’s a great feeling when you play well. I’m not expecting to win anymore big events this year. I know I can do it now, which was important. I just want to play well and know I’ve done all I can each time I turn up to an event.”
With so many achievements on and off the golf course at the age of 14, her parents Steve and Louise supporting her every step, and with such a strong work ethic don’t be surprised if you see more of Jess in the next few years.