Nick Faldo: 'Sure, I would have done it differently'

Exclusive: Nick Faldo, who predicts a tie at Medinah, made mistakes as captain four years ago but was also held back by unexpected events, he tells Brian Viner

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Nick Faldo led an eventful life between 1977 and 2008. Six major championships, four children and three wives represent plenty of ups and downs, but his Ryder Cup career alone was a roller-coaster ride, starting with a staggering successful personal performance at the tender age of 20, when his scalps at Royal Lytham & St Annes included Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, and culminating with his much-criticised stab at captaincy four years ago at Valhalla.

Despite the youthful Faldo's efforts in 1977, the Great Britain & Ireland team lost by the same substantial five-point margin as the European team he captained in 2008. It remains a decidedly disappointing way to book-end the Ryder Cup career of the man who played more times (11) and won more points (25) than anyone else on either side of the Atlantic.

So far, that is. Rory McIlroy, for one, might yet eclipse him and I ask him whether he will mind if his record falls. Silly question. This is Faldo, after all, golf's answer to Geoffrey Boycott. "Of course I'll mind," he says, with only the ghost of a laugh. "I like being No 1, I like hanging on to my records, although at least when they go past me, they have to talk about me. Like Brandt Snedeker at the Open this year, trying to beat my [record 36-hole total of] 130. I'm still proud of those records. And I like it when they say, 'That Faldo, he could really play'."

Regrettably, they also say, 'That Faldo, he wasn't much of a captain'. I have been told by his American manager, a redoubtable former CBS sports executive called LeslieAnne Wade, that Faldo won't talk about Valhalla. And yet he wants very much to talk about it, raising it himself when I ask him what kind of captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who was his deputy in Kentucky, will make. "He and I discussed everything [in 2008], we talked a lot, so I don't know what that will make him after the opinions a lot of the media had about my captaincy."

Is he saying that Olazabal should have taken some of the flak he suffered at Valhalla? It's hard to be sure. "He'll be fine," he adds, of the Spaniard. "But when they start on Friday morning it's down to the players. You prepare them the best you can, but after that you're reacting to situations."

He is right, of course. The significance of the Ryder Cup captain is surely overstated, in that his best players can still perform horribly, and his journeymen like stars. And in a way there is no better example than 2008, when Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia failed to register a single win between them (while one of Faldo's picks, Ian Poulter, was top points scorer). "The three leading players, a point and a half between them ... that wasn't scheduled at the beginning of the week. You'd think they'd be twice as good as that, at worst. So that was a shock.

"Would I have done things differently? Sure, every day you live you could do things differently. But things happened there I didn't expect. Little things, like coming in after the morning session two points down, and the whole atmosphere in the team room was down, long faces everywhere. I said, 'Hang on, let's change this, let's put some music on', but you need foresight. I didn't have foresight..."

Similarly, no one could have foreseen that he, even as a rising young star, would have emerged with a 100 per cent record from the 1977 contest. With Peter Oosterhuis he beat Ray Floyd and Lou Graham in the foursomes, Floyd and Jack Nicklaus in the fourballs, and Watson, who had won the Masters and the Open Championship that year, in the singles.

"Yeah, for a young kid from Welwyn Garden City who had only started playing the game of golf six years before that, it was quite something. It was more than a dream start to my Ryder Cup career, especially beating Nicklaus, who was my idol. I was long in those days. I had one of the early graphite drivers – it looked like a stick of liquorice – and I was hitting it way past Jack. I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my head, and I'm thinking, 'Don't look back...' But I loved it. It was the first time I'd played when my stomach churned all day. That was the effect of the Ryder Cup."

A decade later, Faldo was part of the European team that made history, winning in America and at Muirfield Village to boot, Nicklaus's beloved course in Columbus, Ohio. He had also been in the victorious 1985 team, and yet, in a previous interview with me, surprisingly singled out '85 at The Belfry as one of his career lows.

"I didn't do my bit," he told me then. "I was coming to the end of my swing change, things hadn't quite clicked yet, but Tony [Jacklin] gave me a chance [as a wild card]. I just didn't perform, and when the guys were celebrating at the end, I couldn't. I didn't feel like part of the team."

This comment offered a vivid insight into the Faldo psyche. He still considered it entirely reasonable that he should have sat on his own, sulking, even while the team of which he was a part was hoisting Sam Ryder's old trophy for the first time since 1957. Indeed, in his autobiography, Life Swings, he criticised Jacklin for not putting a consoling arm round his shoulders.

But he experienced the flip side two years later, and cites the win at Muirfield Village as one of his two most precious Ryder Cup memories. The other was Europe's victory at Oak Hill in 1995, and in particular the last two "away" shots he hit in the most illustrious of Ryder Cup careers, a glorious 93-yard pitch and a nerveless putt to defeat Curtis Strange on the 18th hole. Although it was Philip Walton who then holed the putt to confirm another famous European win, it had been Faldo who turned things around. And acknowledging as much was Seve Ballesteros, far more often an adversary than a team-mate, who enveloped him in a long, meaningful and decidedly lachrymose clinch.

"Yeah, that was a real tear-jerker," recalls Faldo now. "In fact, you've got me going just thinking about it. For Seve to tell me that I was a great champion... it really was one of the best moments of my entire career. We'd battled so hard against one another over the years, but there we were coming together... that was very special."

Ballesteros, of course, always wore his heart on his sleeve at Ryder Cups, properly hating the Americans, who would in turn wind him up by calling him "Steve". But Faldo rejects the idea that Seve, followed closely by his compatriot Olazabal, had more passion for the event than most. "No, the list is a lot longer than those two," he says. "Obviously, Seve was very open about his feelings, but everyone was passionate, everyone was motivated, everyone was there on a mission."

And so back to his own mission four years ago. Would he rather, in retrospect, have captained Europe at home? "No, I would have been happy on either side of the Atlantic. The only difference is that the home captain can set up the golf course how he wants... and I think it was a bit unsporting [of his opposite number at Valhalla, Paul Azinger] to cut down branches at the 16th, I think it was, so [huge hitter] J B Holmes could thread his drive up there."

It remains to be seen whether the changes to Medinah ordered by Davis Love III will have the desired effect. Faldo, like pretty much everyone, thinks this will be one of the tightest of Ryder Cups, but goes further than most in predicting a tie. "Look at how well-matched they are. Both captains have 11 or 12 players on form. They both have long hitters, great putters, interesting dark horses. We have [Paul] Lawrie and [Nicolas] Colsaerts as dark horses; they have [Jason] Dufner and Snedeker. On paper it could be a point either way, and who knows which way that will go? So I'm picking a tie."

Which would mean that Europe keep the trophy. So would Olazabal take a tie now? "No, of course he wouldn't. He's going there to win."

Win or lose, Faldo knows from bitter personal experience that the No 1 player on Olazabal's team will not necessarily be the heaviest points scorer. That he might, indeed, be the lowest points scorer. But everyone knows, even in this week of weeks, that it is not Ryder Cups that determine greatness in golf. So what, finally, of McIlroy's major championship prospects? Faldo won six, comfortably more than any other British player in modern times; does he expect young Rory to reel in that record too?

"It's all speculation," he says of the brilliant Ulsterman, who owed his development as a teenage prodigy partly to Faldo's own initiative to aid junior golf, the Faldo Series. "But the bottom line is, he's special. There's only Jack, Seve, Tiger and now Rory as multiple major winners under the age of 25, and those others all turned out to be very special. What the number will be, we don't know... but he's special, we know that."

Fabulous but flawed: Faldo's Ryder record

Faldo's Ryder Cup statistics:

11 appearances between 1977 and 1997 (all-time record)

46 matches played (all-time record), 23 wins, 19 losses, four halved

25 points won (all-time record)

* Faldo first represented Great Britain & Ireland in the Ryder Cup at Royal Lytham in 1977. Despite not being part of a European winning side until 1985, he holds a number of records in the tournament, including appearances, matches played and points won. Faldo's first success came at The Belfry, while he was also part of winning sides in 1987, 1989, 1995 and 1997.

* After making his final playing appearance in Europe's victory at Valderrama in 1997, Faldo captained the team in 2008 at Valhalla. Europe performed poorly, losing 16½-11½ to surrender the trophy for the first time in nine years. It was Europe's largest losing margin since 1981.

Robert Treasure