Faldo fired for mission improbable

US Open: The game's most complete golfer has the mental strength to realise the implausible dream of the Grand Slam; Peter Corrigan says aggression has added new impetus for a major talent
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The Independent Online
Every year at this time, a solitary golfer stands on the lower slopes of one of sport's last unconquered peaks. The Grand Slam is reachable only by victories in the four major championships of the year which are the US Masters in April, the US Open in June, the Open in July and the USPGA in August, and the reason it rarely gets discussed is that it is regarded as the highest of improbable achievements.

For the last 25 years it has been worth talking about only in the weeks between the Masters and the US Open because not since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 has any player won even the first two legs. And if Nicklaus could not get past halfway to the Grand Slam at the height of his domination of world golf, who could?

Ben Hogan, another colossus of his day, very nearly did in 1953. Despite suffering from injuries received in a car crash, he won the Masters, the US Open and the Open at Carnoustie. He did not compete in the US PGA, which he had won in 1948, because its matchplay format in those days was too strenuous for him. Considering, however, that Hogan was able to play in only five tournaments in 1953 and won them all, including three majors, you might think that was Grand Slam enough.

Historians will consider that the legendary Bobby Jones gained the real Grand Slam in 1930 when he won the Open, the US Open and the amateur championships of both countries. But the modern version, at a time when the number of players capable of winning is so high, retains that elusive place in the clouds and would not be worthy of serious contemplation, if the solitary golfer still in contention was not Nick Faldo.

If you consider bookmakers' odds to be a realistic guide to the likelihood of a sporting miracle being in the offing you will find only confusion from that direction. Coral rate his chances at 400-1 while William Hill consider them to be more like 250-1. Whether this is a discrepancy in faith or mathematics, it is hardly helpful and proves how vaguely mapped out is the road to this particular glory.

As US Masters winner, Faldo has stood on the same spot of brief hope on two previous occasions, in 1989 and 1990, and his failure to make further progress then did not come as a massive surprise because the British do not have a good record in the US Open. Tony Jacklin was the last to win in 1970 and you have to trail back to the winners' list of the 1920s before you locate another Briton and he was Tommy Armour, the Scot who was by then an American citizen.

Faldo is not an officially adopted American, despite his almost permanent presence there over the last 18 months, but his familiarity with things US must considerably increase his chances this time of advancing into serious Grand Slam territory. The Americans are regarding him as the contender best equipped to defeat the field at the formidable Oakland Hills course near Detroit, Michigan, this week.

The challenge he mounts in major championships has taken on new dimensions in both the physical and mental aspects of his game and his ability to grind out impressive scores under pressure and on courses tricked up by the meanest of men, which invariably describes the US Open, has become unequalled.

Clear now, apparently, of the pangs of resettlement and domestic reorganisation, he is offering a more relaxed ruthlessness. His final round of 67 which took the Masters and much of Greg Norman's self- esteem won him increased admiration. Recent visits back home to play at The Oxfordshire and Wentworth yielded no victory but every indication that his form is steadfast and rooted in a deep psychological strength.

He visited Oakland Hills at the beginning of last week and nothing he saw will deflect him from a new style in which aggression is allowed a place among the percentage calculations; he now cherishes the opportunity for the big, decisive shot. After Oakland Hills, he went on to play in the Buick Classic where Greg Norman was back in action after five weeks at home contemplating his navel and, very probably, what's behind it. Norman is an obvious rival in Detroit and no one ought to question his ability to strike back. Tom Watson's first US Tour victory in nine years last weekend will have replenished his appetite for another major and last year's winner, Corey Pavin, is in ominously good form as is the previous year's, Ernie Els.

Faldo may face his fiercest rivalry from Colin Montgomerie whose first major victory is becoming so overdue he can soon expect a final demand. He has twice been in touching distance of the US Open. He was third at Pebble Beach in 1992 and was beaten by Els in a play-off in 1994 but despite astonishing consistency has developed a perplexing habit of finishing with a gap in his arms where a trophy should be.

Montgomerie and Faldo are due to have a head-to-head showdown and it will not be an unpleasant irony if it takes place in a tournament previously regarded as out of bounds to the British. They have been circling each other so far this year - Montgomerie does not take as long to circle as he used to - but have yet to have a climactic confrontation. It it happens, you would not be inclined to back the Scot at the moment.

There is an extra hint of destiny behind Faldo's challenge this week. Oakland Hills was the scene of Ben Hogan's US Open triumph in 1951 and there are strong similarities between the two players who both spent painstaking years in the manufacture of their swings. Hogan's maxim was that golf at the highest level called for the virtues of "practice and tough, unrelenting labour". And these are the sentiments behind Faldo's success.

Now that he has acquired a more philosophical and optimistic approach, it is not unreasonable to regard him as the most complete of all the golfers bidding for the big prizes this year. And 400-1 about the biggest prize of all? The odds are not easily resistible.

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