Courageous Faldo climbs into contention

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The Independent Online
When Nick Faldo went to the first tee at St Andrews yesterday there were enough red figures on the leader board to make him nervous. A brisk wind was getting up and at two over par, trailing the pacesetters by seven shots, the Open favourite had a problem. The problem was making the cut. "I'd got myself in a position where there is always a fear that you're not going to get there," he said.

On the practice ground before setting off at 8am with Bob Tway and Steve Elkington he tried not to think about it. "I knew what I had to do and didn't want to scare myself," Faldo added. When he won here in 1990 after annihilating Greg Norman in the third round, even par was not a safe figure. Among others, it ruled out Arnold Palmer who yesterday took his final bow in the Championship, finishing at 11 over.

Of course, there was more in Faldo's mind than being around for the weekend. The object of all that work he puts in is to be always among the contenders. To get back in touch with them he had to make up five shots or better.

In rehearsals Faldo had felt great but on the first day, by his own standards, he gave a poor performance. "I hit two bad drives and only made two putts," he said. Clearly there was room for considerable improvement.

Golf is a game in which the greatest players can quickly be transformed from tiger to pussycat and back again. Putting is usually central to the transition. If the damn ball will not drop they might as well not be out there.

The perennial quest, the holy grail, is a foolproof method. The thinking becomes frequently convoluted. To overcome their frustration in this matter golfers will try anything from psychology to health food and those awful broom-handled putters. They will even take tips from passing strangers.

Recently, Faldo has adopted a cack-handed grip. Unlike Bernhard Langer his hands remain close together but contrary to standard practice he places the left below the right. This worked better in the second round than it did in the opener. After a 67 brought him to three under for the tournament, Faldo displayed the sunniest side of his nature. He was positively beaming. Even flippant.

Not that he could avoid making technical observations. "I think it's important to putt with the right elbow tucked into your body, for me one of they keys," he stated. It could have been Faldo's guru, David Leadbetter, speaking. "Last year I was trying to find the stroke," he added. "Now I'm not thinking about it."

If you believe that you will believe anything. You might as well regard information from a jockey as gospel. In fact, Faldo was concerned enough on Thursday to seek the assistance of his feisty Swedish bag carrier, Fanny Sunesson. "I'd noticed that I was about an inch out," he said, "so I got Fanny to watch me on the putting green and went back to having her help me with line."

After sinking a 25-footer at the first, Faldo made handsome progress. Seven single putts and barely a hint of trouble until he hit a wayward second at the 16th. A chip to 30 feet, two putts. Bogey.

Perils raised by the 17th have been widely documented. In the first round, Faldo gambled on coming in from the left. This time he conceded to the topographic hazards but struck his second slightly flat and almost ended up in the grim greenside bunker. Lucky but not really a let-off.

Faldo studied the problem of avoiding the sand and getting close enough to have a chance of saving par. Dismissing the degree of difficulty involved he said: "I just had to be careful. There was about a two-foot break but I had to hit it hard enough not to go around the corner. It was all right." Faldo's touch was immaculate, the result near perfection.

Faldo's conclusion that any score under 70 could be regarded as an excellent performance on the day was borne out by subsequent returns. "It's a tough course today," he said. "With the wind whipping across and some of the pin positions they've thrown at us you have to concentrate all the time and hit in the right places."

Hitting in the right places and putting ought to be less of a problem. At least that's the popular theory. The trouble is that putting is mostly in the mind. It is the one shot in golf that any mug is capable of performing to perfection.

If Faldo is not out there practising with his putter in the morning it will be because he has overslept. Another day, and bet your life, for some of them a change of implement.

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