Golf: Faldo at the wrong end of two extremes

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The Independent Online
IT IS a mark of a player that he is the centre of attention when he is not even present at a tournament. When that player is 19 years old, Spanish and has been a professional for less than two months, it is nothing short of remarkable. Sergio Garcia is the man and news of his first-round 67 at the Memorial Tournament in America had reached Colin Montgomerie by the time the Scot had completed 36 holes in the Compass English Open.

When the conversation got round to the choice of Ryder Cup wild cards, as all conversations inevitably do in odd-numbered years, Monty at first kept himself in check and then let a pertinent observation slip past his guard. "I'm just a happy qualifier, I'm not picking the team - that's Mark James' job," he said. "But Garcia? Give him to Olazabal and let him go."

Quite what selections James will have to make for the match against the Americans in September will become clear over the next two months. But the prospect is ever increasing of Jesper Parnevik, a winner on the US tour this season, Garcia and Nick Faldo all chasing the two wild cards.

Should Garcia play, he would be even younger than the 20-year-old Faldo, who became the youngest player to appear in the match in 1977. The latest person to be impressed by the Spaniard is none other than Jack Nicklaus, host of the Memorial. Nicklaus and Garcia played 14 holes of practice prior to the event, the first time the 18-times major champion had ever seen Garcia play. He became an instant fan.

"They would be crazy not to pick him," Nicklaus said. "I had no idea how good a player he was. I knew he was going to be good, but he's better than I thought. It's his composure and the general make-up of his whole game. He's very accurate with a marvellous short game. He's well beyond his years."

Faldo is at the other extreme of his career. He was paired with Montgomerie for the first two rounds, the first time either of them could remember playing together since they were partners in the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in 1995. While the Scot added a second-successive 70 to be four under, Faldo scored a 74 to be at level par, which for most of the afternoon was sitting on the wrong side of the cut line.

"He is giving himself chances but he is not taking them," Montgomerie said of Faldo. "That is very draining. Confidence breeds confidence. The only difference between us over the first two days was that I holed four more putts. The rhythm is still there and he is still determined. You will not find anyone as determined."

Faldo muttered few words afterwards, let alone a complete sentence, but the sense was that his putting was still at fault. But one obvious difference from his heyday is the quality of his short game. Then it would be inconceivable for there to be 166 better bunker players, as this season's AXA Performance Data suggests there currently are on the European tour.

It was to cost him at the par-five ninth, his last hole. In a front bunker in two, Faldo failed to get up and down from the sand for the birdie he needed for a more relaxing afternoon than the one he spent worrying about a potential seventh missed cut of the year. Presumably in case he was not going to be around for the weekend, Faldo booked a practice round with Montgomerie at Pinehurst prior to the US Open in two weeks' time.

With the overnight leaders, John Bickerton and Geoff Ogilvy, initially falling back, the early clubhouse leaders became Peter Mitchell and Peter Senior at seven under. Mitchell, who scored a 69, often rooms with Bickerton. "When I see him on the leaderboard, I use him as a marker," Mitchell said.

Senior, who left the European tour to play full time in Japan, is back playing on a few invitations. The Australian's income is more from business these days. He set up the company Cash Converters, did very nicely when it went public and is now working on projects in Sydney.

"I'm amazed how out of proportion it gets in the papers," he said. "My fortune doubles every time I read about it."