Golf: Faldo finds his swing at last

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EUPHORIC MAY be a slight exaggeration but Nick Faldo was certainly a happy chappy. "I shall go and have a tuna sandwich to celebrate," he confirmed. And to what can this joyousness be attributed? The first round of the BellSouth Classic represented the first time in 16 attempts that Faldo managed to break 70. With the US Masters looming a week away, it was just in the nick of time for the six-time major champion who has slumped to 97th in the world, 21st in Europe and 11th in Britain.

More than his score of 69, three under, Faldo was pleased with how he was swinging, which is always his criterion for assessing a round. "That's what we need," he said. "Very good. Where's it been? It came to me on Tuesday night how I used to work the ball," he added. "I had got defensive by trying not to hit a bad shot. Today I was just seeing the right shot and going for it. A few times I had to say to myself: `Just do it'."

At the ninth the shot he had to envisage was a slice around some trees but his five-iron duly bent the required 30 feet and landed on the green, 25 feet from the hole. The confidence of knowing his long game was back on track flowed into his putting and he holed out for his second birdie of the day. Four more followed on the back nine, including at the last after dropping a shot at the 17th.

Blanked out of his mind - "sometimes you have to cheat yourself" - was the third round 83 at the Players' Championship. Not forgotten, however, was his disqualification in the final round. Another ruling question came up yesterday.

On Sunday, Faldo let Corey Pavin inadvertently talk him into a wrong drop, an error which was only discovered on the next hole. On this occasion, Faldo's ball ended up in casual water at the sixth hole. In taking a free drop, the ball came to rest on a line denoting an area of ground under repair.

With the option to play the ball as it lay or drop again, Faldo was about to play it when again a fellow player, Billy Andrade this time, intervened. "Are you sure that's right?" Andrade asked. Taking no chances, Faldo waited as the others completed the hole for a referee, Steve Carmen, to arrive, who confirmed that the Englishman was acting correctly and that it was "the easiest ruling I have ever had to give".

"I was right again and the other guy almost screwed it up," Faldo said. "But I could see the funny side of it. When Billy came over, I just thought: `Oh blimey, let's get a ruling'."

Also showing signs of improvement was Ian Woosnam, who made five birdies in a 70 after getting a tip from Frank Nobilo to open his stance. "I suddenly got much more penetration with my iron shots," said the Welshman. After three-putting his second hole, actually the 11th, Woosie, who is using the short putter after toying with the broomhandled version, switched back to a cack-handed grip and promptly holed from 12 feet at the next.

Just as many players on the US tour have been complaining about the hard and fast nature of the greens around the circuit this season, Mother Nature took things into her own hands with Wednesday's rain which continued throughout the night. When the morning fog finally lifted after a two-hour delay, the Sugarloaf course was saturated.

Soft and receptive, the greens were back to how most of the pros prefer them. David Duval was as ready as anyone to take advantage and, after going to the turn in one under, he birdied the 10th, 11th, 12th, 16th and 17th for a 66. The new world No 1, as he was announced on the first tee, was three behind early leader Duffy Waldorf, who led by one from Grant Waite.

But the conditions were the exact opposite of what Duval was hoping for with Augusta in mind, where the greens will be as granite-hard as those with which Duval coped so well last week in winning the Players' Championship.

A players' meeting during the event appointed a committee to look at the way courses are set up. "The feedback we got before was to make the greens harder and faster," said Davis Love, a member of the US tour's policy board. "Now... they're too firm and fast. You can't make everybody happy."

Scores, Digest, page 29