Golf: Ryder Cup - Fearless Faldo forced to the fore as rookie Westwood wilts under fire
Saturday 27 September 1997
Since not a sharp word was exchanged and the concessions were unquestionably generous, there was nothing in the morning fourball that set Nick Faldo and Lee Westwood against Fred Couples and Brad Faxon to suggest anything but a sporting event was under way here.
Jingoistic responses, often drummed up by irresponsible observation and the relentless quest for controversy, have become an unfortunate feature of recent Ryder Cup history so it was pleasing to follow a match that conformed entirely to the founder's concept.
Commercial influences make it increasingly difficult for competitors to maintain as sense of proportion about sport but even though every golfer here this week falls into the millionaire category they remain guardians of a hallowed tradition.
The atmosphere was unquestionably tense when the second match of the day went off after a delay caused by a prolonged thunderstorm that began to light up the sky before dawn broke over southern Spain, but it did not prevent Faxon from shaping up playfully to Faldo or Couples from entering into conversation with his opponents.
Golf today is no different from any other sport in having to suffer spectator types who react as though international events are a call to arms so some embarrassment was felt when the encouragement for both sets of players was sometimes unnecessarily raucous. Certainly, we could have done without the urging that came from one particularly loud-mouthed American who was finally persuaded into silence by better-mannered compatriots.
Concentration centred quickly on the fact that Faldo was having to accept the responsibility of shielding Westwood from the pressure that inevitably builds up for rookies in the competition.
Westwood is a fine player and he made a cracking start, birdieing the second to ensure a half and the third to put Europe one up in the match. Youth was having such a fling that one bystander was moved to suggest that Faldo might find himself the junior partner in later proceedings.
This point of view did not account for how quickly confidence can come and go in golf especially when there isn't a great deal of experience to fall back on.
It wasn't long before Westwood's game took a turn for the worse, his relaxed demeanour replaced gradually by evidence of personal concern. Faldo had to come into his own after Couples sank a cool putt to level the match at the eighth and an excellent putt at the next put Europe ahead again.
The 11th was a mess all round, Westwood's inaccuracy leaving Faldo to try and rescue the situation. Faldo shot six to a five by Couples and they were level again.
Few players have a better rhythm than Couples, but a back problem requires frequent loosening-up exercises and every shot is preceded by a set of arm movements designed to maintain mobility. Most of the time he effects an air of fatalistic resignation and his form on tour could hardly be described as consistent. What he does not lack is courage.
This came to fore after both Faldo and Westwood missed makeable putts on the difficult and picturesque par 15th, from which you can look back and see the Rock of Gibraltar rising in the distance.
The hole was more lost than won when Couples put the US ahead with a par putt. Couples matched Faldo's par at the next hole when both Faxon and Westwood were grateful for the resilience of their partners.
Coming over the brow of the fairway at the 17th, a hole that presents a degree of difficulty endorsed by by both teams, the players came across a magnificent sight. A natural amphitheatre, steep set on one side with rising banks of azaleas and guarded by water.
Forced to gamble in order to try and secure a half, Faldo reached for a fairway wood and blasted it on to the green leaving a putt of no more than five feet. Couples answered with an immaculate wedge. Another half. Another miss by Faldo at the last. A cool effort from Faxon and the US had their point.
Prince Andrew was up at 3:30 in the morning yesterday, and showed up at Valderrama half an hour later to watch preparations for the Ryder Cup. He got wet in the morning rain, but he was also impressed with what he saw as ground-keepers swept water off the course. "This is probably the best, most immaculate course anywhere at the moment," he said.
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