Nick Faldo: British golf's misunderstood master launches a charm drive

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The Independent Online

Nick Faldo and I are sitting in the lounge of Burhill Golf Club in Surrey discussing why he has never been offered a knighthood. It is my contention that he should have been, and he doesn't disagree. "I'd be honoured. Crumbs.

Nick Faldo and I are sitting in the lounge of Burhill Golf Club in Surrey discussing why he has never been offered a knighthood. It is my contention that he should have been, and he doesn't disagree. "I'd be honoured. Crumbs.

"I don't know if they're waiting for me to retire officially or what, but then I look at other sports, at Clive [Woodward], at Steve Redgrave ... I don't know what the reasoning behind that one is. Maybe they don't think it's justified. Who knows?"

A look through the index of his new autobiography, Life Swings (Headline £18.99), offers a clue. Faldo, Nick, reputation as a loner: pages 21, 28, 42, 75-76, 88-9, 99, 166-7, 295, 315-16. It is this reputation of Faldo, with its implication that he is also terminally self-centred, a classic only child, that has long being used to diminish his achievements as a golfer. Which of course is ridiculous. The man has won six major golf championships. He has an incomparable record in the Ryder Cup. He might not always have been Mr Conviviality, he might have been gauche at moments that called for graciousness, but so what? He is the greatest British golfer of all time; some would say our greatest living sportsman. An MBE, awarded in 1988, seems scant acknow- ledgment.

Moreover, had he been less self-centred, he would have won fewer majors. Probably none, along with the wonderfully sociable Sam Torrance, or maybe one, like the deliciously convivial Ian Woosnam. I'm sure you get my drift.

I would not dwell on this but for the fact that Faldo does himself. In his book he refers tartly to the BBC's Century of Sport awards programme, in which his three Open Championships and three US Masters titles were afforded scarcely any screen time. "Yeah, that was amazing," he tells me. "Wow. Six majors and I got three seconds. I didn't understand that. But there's not much you can do about it. You've just got to be comfortable with yourself."

How comfortable he is with himself, I'm not sure. In Life Swings he protests a little too hard that he is misunderstood, telling us, for example, that the American golfer Peter Jacobsen thinks him the funniest Englishman since John Cleese. Hmmm. Maybe Peter Jacobsen should get out more. I recommend an Eddie Izzard or Peter Kay gig. But the fact remains that Faldo thinks himself far more sinned against than sinning, and, for what it's worth, I concur. Nothing exemplifies this better than the unseemly episode at Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1999, when the European Ryder Cup captain, Mark James, binned his letter conveying best wishes to the team.

James, it can be safely assumed, does not think Faldo should be Europe's next Ryder Cup captain. Does Faldo?

"I would love to do it," he says. "I'm not campaigning for it, but obviously I would be honoured if they pick me. As a team player I would let my Ryder Cup record speak for itself. If Mark James doesn't think I would be good for the team socially, that's his opinion. It is maybe 10 years ago since I was last with Mark James in the team room, and I am not necessarily the same person. I was a serious competitor back then. But if they [the Ryder Cup Committee] see a stumbling block, then fine. All I know is that some players came to me about Brookline and said [of James's claim that he took soundings from the entire team about whether Faldo's letter should be chucked away] 'that's wrong'. I have heard that it was just two guys [who took the decision]."

If, when he finally sits down to assess his career, there are six major titles but no Ryder Cup captaincy, what would be his emotion? Anger? Indignation? Disappointment?

"I would wonder why," he says. "But no more than that."

Let us examine Faldo's Ryder Cup record. He has made more appearances - 11 - and won more points than any player on either side of the Atlantic.

He played once when it was just Great Britain and Ireland against the mighty United States, in 1977. With Peter Oosterhuis he beat Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd in the fourballs, and he defeated Tom Watson in his singles match. He has won a record 23 matches altogether, beating Arnold Palmer by one. Yet the one Ryder Cup episode consistently revisited by his critics unfolded at Kiawah Island in 1991, when he was so wrapped up in his own game that he seemed almost oblivious to his foursomes partner David Gilford.

In Life Swings, Faldo accepts the rap. But then his neglect of Gilford that day was hewn from the same side of his personality that enabled him to overhaul Greg Norman in the 1996 US Masters. It is the ability to concentrate to the exclusion of the world around him, compounded by granite, mental toughness.

How, I ask Faldo, did that toughness develop. Was it always there, or did he learn it?

"I suppose it was always there to some extent. But I learnt how to control my breathing, for example. I heard about these cross-country skiers who stop and shoot at targets, and for the shooting bit they actually slow their heartbeat down. I thought that would be useful for golf, and so I learnt the technique. As pressure mounted and most people were getting twitched up, I could go the other way and slow things down. You lower your breathing and even give yourself verbal commands. It all helps with the ability to focus on something completely.

"And of course, if your mind is totally clear with no intervention of any other thoughts, that's what these days is called being 'in the zone'.

"With me they made it a negative thing. There was a misconception that I was like that 24/7. But imagine how focused Michael Schumacher has to be inside his helmet. That's what Nigel Mansell said to me once; 'I'm lucky, I'm inside my helmet. Everyone can see your emotions'."

Those emotions are different now. Faldo, as he is the first to admit, is more mellow, more approachable. His third marriage seems unlikely to go the way of his first two, which foundered on the rocks of his self-absorption and long absences. Colin Montgomerie has recently sailed the same stormy waters. Has he spoken to Monty about his marriage breakdown? "No. Nobody really talked to me, either. I don't want to interfere, but if he wants to come and talk to me, fine. He knows where I am. I do know exactly what goes on in those situations. You've just got to make the children your priority."

Faldo, having fathered three children with his second wife Gill, now has a fourth with his Swiss wife Valerie. It is significant that Valerie comes from a PR background. She has encouraged him to embark on a charm offensive with the same press that he once notoriously thanked, after winning the Open at Muirfield in 1992, from the heart of his bottom. Not that he regrets saying what he did.

"Blimmin' 'eck," he says. "The media had been on my back since.

"They didn't appreciate my work ethic. So that was my way of having a dig at them, and some couldn't handle it, which I found very interesting. They were quite happy to press the button when they wanted to be critical about me or other players, but when I fired back... ooph!

"That's not to say that I don't have regrets, though. One of them is that I was never bold enough to go to Jack Nicklaus and say 'do you mind if I toddle behind you on and off the golf course for a month or so?' I learnt so much the few times I played with Jack, about his strategy, his shot-making, and it would have been great to follow him off the golf course too, to learn how to conduct yourself, how to deal with interviews and all that."

These days Faldo knows how to deal with interviews. The charm offensive has worked, although it is easier to charm people when you are not winning any more; see John McEnroe for further details.

What is it like, I ask him, to no longer be a winner after so many years in pursuit of nothing else?

"Tough," he admits. "I can still do all the things I could, but not quite to call. My percentage of great shots is way less now, and the reasons for that are a little bit physical and a little bit mental. I have made millions of golf swings over the years, and my body has felt tired this last year or two. The hips tighten up, the shoulders tighten up. When you're playing well you're spiralling up all the time. You have good thoughts, you then hit good shots confirming your thoughts. But now I find myself spiralling down. It's frustrating. In Dubai this year there were four times in the week that I was four under for six holes, yet I finished no better than four under for the whole tournament."

Still, it's not as though he has nothing else to occupy him. He is heavily involved in golf course design and construction, and there is also the Faldo Series promoting junior golf, which indeed is why I have come to meet him at Burhill, where some of Britain's most talented young players are competing to join an élite group which the great man will take under his wing.

As a youngster himself, Faldo had an extraordinary knack for replicating the golf swings of the best players in the world. Inspired to take up golf by watching Nicklaus playing in the Masters on television, he became obsessional, and every year was taken by his parents to The Open, where he watched and absorbed.

"That," he tells me, "was my great inspiration. I had this ability to go back to Welwyn Garden and do Johnny Miller's swing [which he demonstrates for me], or [Tom] Weiskopf, with his straight left arm.

"It's become a teaching technique of mine. How many amateurs tell themselves that they're crap at bunker shots? I tell them to stand back and think of the world's best bunker players. For me it was Gary Player, or later, Seve [Ballesteros]. I would see them in my mind's eye, and make the same stance as them, and that completely got rid of all the negatives in my head, because now I saw myself doing the same as them.

"I taught this lady in Vietnam. She told me she was petrified to swing in front of me. I said: 'Right, I'll tee up two balls, make a swing, hit the ball, and I won't say a word. I want you to soak all that up, then I'll walk out of the picture, you step into my ghost, and make a swing'. Which she did, and tonked it 150 yards down the fairway. The wacky bit is that the swing didn't change. You can't give someone a Faldo golf swing in two seconds. It was still a poor swing. But because she had pictured something positive, she hit a good shot. I was proud of that."

What we now need, I say, is for a British golfer to step into his ghost and win a whole clutch of major championships. For the first time in years there are a bunch of young turks - notably Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell, but others too - who seem to have enough ability. But which of them will emerge from the pack? Does he see anything of his younger self in any of those guys?

"That's a tough one," he says. "They are all seriously talented in different ways - the consistency of Luke Donald, the power of Paul Casey.

"But it's not what you can see from the outside that matters." He leans forward. "It's what the fire is like within."