Golf: Faldo starts his Ryder charge

USPGA Championship: Boost for Europe as cup stalwart fires first- round 71 to put himself on heels of early leaders

NICK FALDO has left it late, but yesterday the six-times major champion finally presented the first flickerings of a reason why the European Ryder Cup captain, Mark James, should pick the 42-year-old as a wild card. Faldo opened the 81st USPGA Championship with a one-under par 71, his best start in the majors this season. Jay Haas and the Canadian left-hander Mike Weir were the early clubhouse leaders on 68.

Both in 1995 and '97, Faldo's form caused concerns, but the respective captains, Bernard Gallacher and Seve Ballesteros, could not contemplate facing the Americans without him. Each time Faldo justified the faith shown in him. At Oak Hill he gained a vital point in the last day singles, while at Valderrama he instructed Lee Westwood in the arts of international team competition.

But almost a year after splitting from his long-term coach, David Leadbetter, Faldo has plummeted to 193rd in the world rankings and missed the cut in the three majors so far this year.

No one has gained more points in the history of the Cup but whether he will extend his record number of appearances to 12, in what could be the least experienced European team for almost two decades, is in the hands of James when the team is finalised next week in Munich.

James, true to his nature, remains coy about those in the running for his wild cards. He will not be drawn on any individuals but did say: "Obviously experience can be useful but, I have said all along, experience can be overrated. I am looking for players who play well under pressure and Faldo certainly comes into that category. A Faldo playing well would be a huge asset to the team."

That is the mission of his new coach, Mitchell Spearman, who has worked with Leadbetter in the past, and the Swedish sports psychologist, Kjell Enhager. "We have been working hard over the last four days and I played very well from tee-to-green," Faldo said. "I didn't make many putts but the putting was a lot better."

Faldo immediately felt comfortable back on the course where he almost got into a play-off for the US Open in 1990, when his putt at the last came up just a roll short of joining Hale Irwin, the winner, and Mike Donald during the season when he won the Masters and the Open.

But heavy rain made conditions difficult for the early starters and the course played all of its 7,401 yards. Still, Faldo rolled in a 12-footer on the first and, though he dropped a shot at the par-five seventh, he birdied the next two. At the eighth he chipped in and then he holed a monster from 70 feet at the ninth.

Faldo bogeyed the 12th but after a poor drive at the last, which ended in a bunker, his recovery hit a tree and came down 60 yards short of the green. But he bravely pitched to eight feet and holed the putt. "That helped the day," Faldo said.

"Mark has not said a dicky bird about the Ryder Cup so I am just trying to play as well as I can. It's been frustrating always finding a reason to mess up. It would be nice to have 72 solid holes."

Robert Karlsson, ninth on the Ryder Cup standings, opened well with a 70 while Ian Woosnam had a 73. David Duval, one of the players along with Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods at whom the US captain, Ben Crenshaw, had launched an extraordinary attack, also had a 70.

If it was a calculated risk by Crenshaw to humiliate some of his leading players publicly, it may have worked. But it is more likely that Crenshaw was just so angry that he could not contain himself any longer despite the obvious effect of destroying his own team's unity.

It certainly put the lie to the words of the PGA of America's Jim Awtrey and US Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem, following Tuesday's team meeting that there was "no issue with the players" and that everyone was "on the same page".

Crenshaw, the twice US Masters champion, is known as "Gentle Ben" and has a reputation for crying at the opening of shopping centres. But he is a fierce traditionalist and anyone who thought he was too soft to be an effective Ryder Cup captain got a shock on Wednesday. In the current issue of Golf Digest, Crenshaw is described as a "perfect gentleman" who "is the nicest cold-blooded killer out there".

"If you can't show up and play for your country, and that is not reward enough, that's when my heart bleeds for the game of golf," Crenshaw said. "It's sick. People are tired of hearing this stuff."

As well as the payment issue, Crenshaw was shocked at the use of the word "exhibition" in connection with the Ryder Cup, something Woods, who played at Valderrama two years ago, and Duval, who has never played in the match, have done recently. "Players have called it an exhibition. How can they do that? One player hasn't even played in it. It is not an exhibition."

EARLY FIRST-ROUND SCORES

(Par 72; US unless stated)

68

J Haas, M Weir

70

D Duval, B Zabriski, R Karlsson (Swe)

71

M Calcavecchia, J Furyk, N Faldo (GB)

72

M Reid, G Hjertstedt (Swe), J Sindelar

73

S Keppler, F Lickliter, J L Lewis, I Woosnam (GB), J Sindelar, T Herron, B Tway, K Sutherland

74

K Sutherland

76

R Allenby (Aus), J Carter, P-U Johansson (Swe)

77

J Sandelin (Swe), S Gump

78

W DeFrancisco, K Thompson, T Thelen

79

B Upper

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