Faldo worth a place in the Cotton club

For more than half a century Henry Cotton has been hailed as the greatest British golfer of all. But now, argues Tim Glover, he has a rival for the title
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The Independent Online
To be good you must put golf before everything else, before a wife and family, before everything. You have to be both selfish and self- sacrificing." For some reason Nick Faldo springs to mind, but the words were spoken by Henry Cotton to a group of young professionals 20 years ago.

In the pantheon of great British golfers, there are places for Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Max Faulkner, Fred Daly, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, but the real race is between Cotton and Faldo. "For me," Peter Alliss once wrote, "Cotton is not only the greatest British player of the last 60 years but the best ever. In his own way he has been one of the most caring and influential contributors to golf this century."

"Henry was the one who got us into golf clubs," Fred Daly said. "Being a pro before the war meant there were a whole lot of clubs we weren't allowed into. Henry opened the doors. He made professional golf what it is." Cotton had planned to become a civil engineer but fate intervened.

A pupil at Alleyn's public school, he was a useful cricketer. After a match at Marlow, Cotton and three other juniors had to take the team's cricket bag back to Dulwich. On the train they composed a note: "We beg to show our kind appreciation of being allowed the privilege of transporting the cricket bag from Marlow to Dulwich to the detriment of our tender muscles and to the advantage of the select and most condescending. We think it is a pity that people who are supposed to be looked up to should so fail in their thoughts for the school and their fellow beings."

The note was pushed under the door of the prefects' room, a red rag to a bully if ever there was one. Cotton later recounted that his three friends were "brutally, vindictively and excessively thrashed by four prefects with canes (including one walking cane). The prefects struck with all their might and were particularly vicious."

Cotton, of course, refused to be caned on medical grounds. His outraged father delivered a barrage of broadsides against the school and the impasse was only resolved by Cotton's departure. At the age of 16 he became a golf professional. Cotton was one of six junior assistants at Fulwell Golf Club at 12 shillings and sixpence a week (about 62 pence in decimal currency) and his job in the shop was to sweep the floor, clean shoes and sandpaper hickory shafts for the clubmaker.

At the age of 19, he became the head professional at Langley Park, Beckenham, the youngest in the history of British golf. He spent hour after hour hitting balls into a net in his back garden. "I practised until dark, often by lamplight, concentrating on every shot," he said, "and every putt was to win the Open. I had the desire to be Open champion and I did everything within my power to achieve that goal. I realised I wasn't going to be a physical giant, but I made myself stronger. I realised early on that golf was played from the elbows down and all the rest was flavouring. I built my hands and arms up to the point where I could hit the ball with my left hand and right hand independently and almost as well as with both together."

In 1927 he played in the Open Championship at St Andrews and finished eighth behind Bobby Jones. The following year he visited the United States, refashioned his swing and finished third in the Sacramento Open. He made a victorious Ryder Cup debut in 1929 at Moortown but didn't make another appearance in the biennial competition for eight years.

Cotton and his monogrammed shirts were a one off. His fellow professionals thought he was conceited and arrogant. He thought the profession was shabbily treated and decamped to the Royal Waterloo club, near Brussels. "It seemed to me," he said, "that visiting players to Britain received better treatment than the home-based ones." In the Open at Royal St George's in 1934 he opened with a 67 followed by a 65. It inspired the Dunlop 65 golf ball. Cotton had a nine-stroke lead going into the last day and, despite suffering from stomach cramps, won by five with a record-equalling aggregate of 283.

He won again at Carnoustie in 1937 and his third and final Open triumph was at Muirfield in 1948. The feeling is that there would have been more but for the intervention of the war. Shortly before his death in December 1987 he was knighted. However, Sir Henry had already been bestowed with the most honourable accolade. He was simply referred to as the Maestro.

It is invidious to compare sportsmen of different eras, but if Cotton was the Maestro, Nick Faldo MBE (no knighthood yet) is the Master. Faldo, the archetypal only child, was not into team sports. He excelled at swimming and cycling. In 1971, when he was 13, his parents bought a colour television. On a summer's evening in Welwyn Garden City, Faldo was glued to the box, watching the Masters from Augusta. He saw Jack Nicklaus playing golf and from that moment Faldo joined the Cotton club: "golf became a life's work".

Like Cotton, he remodelled his swing; like Cotton, he went to America. Unlike Cotton, he won the Masters. Within two years of learning the game he had a handicap of plus one. Eight days after his 18th birthday in 1975 he became the youngest winner of the English Amateur Championship. Naturally, he turned professional and was 58th in the Order of Merit in 1976, with pounds 2,112. In 1983 he was first with pounds 140,000 and two years later, when his arch rival Sandy Lyle won the Open at Sandwich, Faldo turned to David Leadbetter and adopted a new swing.

Like Cotton, Faldo has won the Open three times; at Muirfield in 1987, St Andrews in 1990 and Muirfield again in 1992. He won the Masters at Augusta in 1989 and again in 1990, both in sudden death play-offs. He did not need extra holes to demolish Greg Norman, the world No 1, at Augusta last April, scoring 67 to the Australian's 78 in the final round.

When Faldo won at Muirfield nine years ago he had 18 pars in the last round while Paul Azinger finished bogey, bogey to lose by a stroke. At the prize- giving, Azinger was disappointed at Faldo's lukewarm reaction to the American's demise. At Augusta three months ago, Faldo's reaction to a beaten opponent could not have been warmer. "Faldo's gone way up in my estimation," Norman said after being embraced by the Englishman on the 18th green. "I just wanted to give him a good hug," Faldo said. "I felt for him. It was as simple as that."

With his second marriage on the rocks, Faldo is exiled on the US Tour but only a fool would bet against him adding to his portfolio of six major titles. Of his momentous final round in the Masters, Faldo said: "I was able to hit it where I wanted to. The way I played under that pressure, especially over the last nine holes ..." He kept referring to a Ben Hogan quote: the game was 100 per cent mental and 100 per cent physical.

Faldo never saw Cotton in his prime and in that respect the latter has the edge. "Here is a true champion in the making," Cotton remarked after watching Faldo win the first of his PGA Championship titles at Royal Birkdale in 1978. Cotton on silk.