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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ryder Cup Legends – Nick Faldo

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The fourth European (and seventh overall) to feature in our Ryder Cup Legends series is Englishman Nick Faldo, the most successful European player of the modern era. Though Faldo’s widely publicised and disastrous captaincy in 2008 may have been a sour note on which to sign off, there is little denying the six-time major winner’s value to the British and Irish and European sides in a Ryder Cup career spanning three decades.

Born in 1957 in modest surroundings in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, the young Faldo was a keen sportsman as a child, particularly fond of cricket and cycling, but it wasn’t until a few months shy of his 14th birthday that golf entered the equation. Inspired by watching the Sunday broadcast of the 1971 Masters, Nick’s journey to superstardom began almost immediately with a set of borrowed clubs at nearby Welwyn Golf Club.

Faldo rapidly progressed and just three years after first picking up a club, qualified for the English Amateur Championship – the nation’s premier amateur competition – before returning to win the event the following year, along with the British Youths title.

It would be easy to assume that Faldo’s prodigious ascent was due to supreme natural talent but that would belie the work ethic he would display throughout his career. Fashioning a makeshift golf-bag holder for his bike, Nick would race to the golf course often arriving before the greenkeepers and remain until dusk, meticulously working on every facet of his game.

As Faldo’s notoriety grew, he was awarded a scholarship by the University of Houston but though he accepted, he quickly discovered that class attendance – mandatory for those on scholarship – was severely eating into his practice. So, a little over five years after first grasping a club, Nick Faldo left college, returned to Britain and turned pro.

The decision would immediately pay dividends. Joining the European Tour as a 19-year-old rookie in 1977, it quickly became apparent that Faldo’s Tour credentials were rock solid. He lost in a playoff to Seve Ballesteros at the Uniroyal Championship a month before his 20th birthday but went one better a month after in winning his first professional title at the Skol Lager Individual Championship, ultimately finishing eighth on the European Tour order of merit.

He also qualified for the 1977 Ryder Cup, becoming the youngest player in the event’s history at that time. If the weight of history was a burden on his young shoulders, there was little sign at Royal Lytham & St. Annes as Faldo partnered Peter Oosterhuis to take down first Raymond Floyd and Lou Graham, then Floyd and Jack Nicklaus, before the rookie capped off a perfect individual performance by dispatching Tom Watson in the singles. Despite Faldo’s heroics – only Oosterhuis and Lanny Wadkins had matched his three-and-oh record in the newly shortened format – the United States ran out comfortable winners such was the vast chasm in pedigree.

The 1977 event would be the final bow of the British and Irish side with the addition of continental Europeans to the line-up in ’79. Faldo’s progression had spluttered somewhat, only adding one European Tour victory in the preceding two years and qualifying in tenth place in the European rankings.

With the format revised once more to resemble its current state, Faldo and Oosterhuis teamed up once more, sitting out Thursday’s afternoon foursomes but winning two and losing one of the other three. With the Americans a point ahead going into the singles, it was delicately poised with the US a point ahead. With the singles split into two waves, Faldo was first out in the second wave but the damage had already been done. Faldo’s 3&2 win over Lee Elder meant that only Bernhard Gallacher had a greater return for the Europeans, though Gallacher did have the benefit of one match extra.

The less said about the 1981 Ryder Cup, the better. The Europeans welcomed an all-star US line-up to Walton Heath and were soundly thrashed. Faldo’s singles 2&1 win over Jonny Miller the only bright spark in an otherwise dull week for the young Englishman who had lost both his paired outings in previous days. The Americans’ nine-point victory would be the heaviest defeat shipped by the Europeans to this day.

It’s fair to say that Faldo’s talents were well respected but there was a definite concern that he lacked the ability to close out tournaments with any regularity. At the start of the 1983 season, he’d compiled four wins in five years. A decent return by most standards, but when viewed alongside the similarly aged Ballesteros’ 17 (including two majors) in the same period, it’s easy to see why that sentiment existed. 1983 changed all that. Over a four-month period, Nick won five times on the European Tour and arrived at the 1983 Ryder Cup as the leading player on the European Order of Merit.

With Oosterhuis now gone, Faldo teamed with Bernhard Langer in all four paired outings at PGA National in Palm Beach, Florida. The European couple won three of their four matches, dispatching Lanny Wadkins and Craig Stadler, Ben Crenshaw and Calvin Peete, and Tom Kite and Raymond Floyd, before Faldo took down Jay Haas in the singles and Langer edged out Gil Morgan. Alas, dejection awaited both Faldo and Langer as Tom Watson defeated Bernhard Gallacher in the crucial anchor match for the United States to scrape home by the narrowest of margins.

Faldo was a good player, a really good player, but he still felt he had a long way to go to achieve greatness. For that, he felt he would have to reinvent his swing entirely. Amid a crumbling first marriage, he moved to the United States and began working with David Leadbetter in a complete overhaul of his swing which was looked upon as odd at best and outright insanity at worst.

With his game in pieces, Tony Jacklin extended a captain’s pick to Faldo for the 1985 Ryder Cup at the Belfry. The pick was purely based on Faldo’s previous Ryder Cup record, but it was evident from early in the opening foursomes that the star of the three previous cups was not going to repeat the feat. He didn’t play again until losing to Hubert Green in the singles and though Europe would hand the Americans their first defeat since 1957, Faldo felt dejected, bitterly disappointed at his own personal contribution.

It was a feeling he wouldn’t forget.

With a rebuilt swing, the now 29-year-old approached the 1987 season with many reasons to be optimistic. The work with Leadbetter appeared to settle in, and he was back in the winners’ circle at the Spanish Open in May, fully three years since his last victory. Two months later he would claim his first major championship, famously posting 18 consecutive pars to claim the Open Championship at Muirfield before joining the Ryder Cup squad again as they went eyed handing the Americans their first ever home defeat in the event.

The Omens were good for Faldo. The event was being staged at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club and its Scottish namesake had been very kind to the Englishman just weeks before.

Ian Woosnam would be Faldo’s partner in crime on this occasion, claiming three-and-a-half points in the paired matches, finishing second only to Ballesteros in what was arguably Seve’s finest Ryder Cup display. This time, Faldo could feel proud of his involvement, even if the lone wolf persona he had cultivated meant it unlikely that he would get overly boisterous in the team room.

Now firmly established as a superstar, Faldo would add a Green Jacket to the Claret Jug in 1989 and play another important part in Europe retaining the Ryder Cup that September, even if he was disappointed not to be able to collect the winning point against Lanny Wadkins.

More majors followed in 1990, successfully defending his title at The Masters before blitzing the field at the Old Course for his second Open Championship win. With his game at an all-time high, few could’ve seen the slump that would follow in 1991, meaning that Faldo once again had to rely on a captain’s pick from Berhard Gallacher to compete at Kiawah Island in what has infamously become known as the War on the Shore. Much like 1985 however, Faldo’s shaky confidence was mercilessly exposed in the pressure cauldron in South Carolina. A spirited singles victory over Raymond Floyd helped appearances, but one victory and three defeats told its own story.

Throughout his career, Faldo was ruthlessly pursued, ridiculed and derided by the British Tabloid press. His standoffish nature created few friends among the media – nor among his fellow professionals – but his singlemindedness saw him climb the ladder once more and claim another Open Championship win in 1992 at which he famously further shunned the press by thanking them “from the heart of my bottom” on the 18th green.

At the age of 36, Faldo played his ninth Ryder Cup at the Belfry in 1993. In a similar vein to previous years, carrying good form into the event, Faldo was among Europe’s best performers, with two wins and two halves from five matches. Only Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie scored higher in what would unfortunately be another narrow defeat for the European side.

1995 was only the second year in a decade that Faldo failed to post a major top-10 finish – often having three – and once again needed to rely on the good graces of Bernard Gallacher for a place in the Ryder Cup side heading to Oak Hill. Similar to previous editions, Faldo was short of confidence but Gallacher wasn’t. He sent Faldo out in all five matches, allowing the most successful player in his squad the opportunity to play his way into form. It was a risky move, especially as Faldo and Montgomerie dropped two points on the opening day.

With the Europeans trailing nine-seven going into the final day, every point was crucial (as they always are) but some seem more crucial than others. As the smoke began to clear, one match in particular looked set to tip the scales. Curtis Strange was leading Faldo by one standing on the 17th tee. Ask anyone who’s been involved and they will tell you there’s no greater pressure in golf than the Ryder Cup. Under the microscopic glare, Strange wilted and Faldo stood strong, winning the final two holes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Philip Walton may have won the final point, but Faldo won the decisive one. Later, looking back on his career, Faldo would single out the 93-yard wedge shot to four feet on the final hole as the most important shot of his career.

20 years after making his Ryder Cup debut at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Nick Faldo’s Ryder Cup playing farewell came at Valderrama, thanks to a captain’s nod from occasional ally and regular opponent Seve. Though he’d won another Green Jacket in 1996 as he cold-bloodedly executed a flailing Greg Norman, there was a definite sense that the end was near for the Englishman. This time, Faldo had a new protégé in the shape of countryman Lee Westwood. Faldo and Westwood won two and lost two of their four-ball and foursomes matches and Faldo signed off with a 3&2 defeat to Jim Furyk. His two points were enough to give him sole possession of the record for highest points earned in a Ryder Cup career – a record which stood until Sergio Garcia edged a half-point ahead in 2018.

As Faldo’s career wound down, the six-time major champion moved into the commentary booth with CBS in the United States, and his failed Ryder Cup captaincy in 2008 is as much the fault of the European Tour as it is of Faldo himself. The impersonal manner with which Faldo the player climbed the ladder to the top of the game is one of the very reasons that his captaincy was doomed to failure.

Nevertheless, Faldo was instrumental in the rise in stature of European golf and in the competitiveness of Europe on the Ryder Cup stage. Eleven Ryder Cup appearances is a figure unlikely to be broken and his winning percentage of more than 54 percent accrued during the competition’s most pivotal years have guaranteed his place in the event’s annals.

Nick Faldo, a true Ryder Cup legend.

 

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