Golf: Flawless Faldo on course

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The Independent Online
THE West Course at Wentworth is one of the most difficult in the world at the best of times, a wonderful test of shot-making. But all week a north-easterly blew into the faces of the competitors in the Toyota World Match Play Championship, making every hole from the 13th longer and more testing than usual.

So it is no surprise that today's final should be between Nick Faldo, the best player in the world, and Jeff Sluman, the man who has played most consistently in the other half of the draw.

Sluman's passage into his first final was made easier because Ian Woosnam's putting, always capricious, was not in the same class as it had been on Thursday and Friday. What he had then was gone yesterday. He should have bottled it, whatever it was.

Faldo beat Nick Price, the reigning US PGA champion, to reach his fourth matchplay final because he was relentless, methodical, well-nigh faultless. All this when it was most needed.

'He played flawless golf,' said Price, characteristically generous. 'I can remember only one loose shot of his and that was the tee- shot at the 13th, which he pushed to the right. Other than that, it was the middle of the fairway and the middle of green and that is pretty hard golf to beat.'

Sluman is familiar at being unfancied and unheralded. When he won the US PGA Championship in 1988 with a superb last round of 65, he seemed so little known and self-effacing that one was reminded of Winston Churchill's jibe about Clement Attlee. 'An empty taxi drew up outside No 10 and Mr Attlee got out.'

He and Woosnam last met in this championship in 1988. Woosnam won 7 and 6. The way the Welshman began yesterday he seemed intent on repeating that performance, He was three up after seven holes.

This could easily have been a singles in next year's Ryder Cup at The Belfry and, if it is, supporters of Europe will hope their man's putting has improved. That is nearly always the key to Woosnam. He was devastating on Thursday and Friday because he had taken some loft off the face of his putter and was concentrating on gripping the handle with the last three fingers of his left hand.

But there was no consistency against his American opponent. He would hole one putt of an improbable length and two-putt from nowhere. He single-putted the third and fourth holes but took two putts from eight feet on the fifth and two putts from four feet on the sixth. Woosnam did himself no favours on the 11th where, from the middle of the fairway, he hit his second shot over the green, chipped back 12 feet past the hole and two-putted. But the 12th hurt him much more.

Woosnam hit a spanking drive, almost inch-perfect to the right side of the fairway with a hint of draw. It was fully 40 yards past Sluman's, whose ball had crashed into the trees and luckily rebounded. Woosnam's second, hit with a five-iron, bounded over the green and he pitched back to four feet. Sluman, meanwhile, had pitched from 60 yards to 20 feet and then coaxed in the putt. Suddenly Woosnam's putt for a half began to look a lot longer. He appeared tentative as he prowled around it, sizing it up. Sure enough he missed. Sluman was back to all square.

Sluman is small in stature, quiet of voice, undemonstrative by nature. He is sneaky long, managing to hit the ball as far as Woosnam because his shots have a lower trajectory and run further. Stick a grubby hat on his head, dirty his face and he could be the sort of mischievous rascal who knocks on your front door and runs away.

Sluman saved himself on the 20th and 21st, both times getting up and down from bunkers with shots which he said were 'pretty good'. He was four up after the 27th, where Woosnam lost a ball. Woosnam won back two holes but that is all. Sluman became the first American to reach the final since Ben Crenshaw in 1980.

'This was typical of the sort of golf I have played all year,' Woosnam said. 'I putt great one day and terrible the next. It is very disappointing. Everything felt uncomfortable today. I couldn't see the lines of the putts clearly.'

Faldo and Price have known each other for years. They are physically similar, facially alike and were born within six months of one another in 1957. Both are taught by David Leadbetter. When Faldo was anxious to rebuild his swing it was Price who recommended Leadbetter to him.

Both were out in 33, Price's score and swing looking rather the more solid. Faldo was swinging too quickly just as he had been in Belgium two weeks ago when he blew up spectacularly with victory seemingly in his grasp. Price, the reigning US PGA champion, contributed to Faldo's cause by three- putting both the 12th and 14th.

Faldo then threw away these gifts from his opponent. He hit his second into a bunker on the 15th and drove into the trees on the right of the 16th. Now, he was two down. As Faldo holed out on the 18th one of those watching him from a balcony behind the green was none other than his fellow Wentworth member, Sandy Lyle.

It is when the odds are against him that Faldo seems to play best. Remember what he did in the Open at Muirfield. He was not going to let Price get away. He bolted his food and went to practise for 20 minutes and concentrate on his tempo and the movement of his hips. The result was immediately apparent. In the afternoon he became more solid.

He birdied the 23rd hole by sinking an 8ft putt, the 29th with a putt of the same distance, the 30th with one of six feet and the 33rd with another of eight feet. This says something about the soundness of Faldo's putting and the accuracy of his iron play.

He may have to reproduce this sort of form to overcome Sluman today. 'The last time I played with him was at Greensboro (North Carolina) and he played like God,' Faldo said. Hark who's talking. Faldo had just completed 17 holes in these difficult conditions in 62 strokes.

TODAY'S TEE-OFF TIMES: Final (36 holes) 8.15am and 1pm J Sluman (US) v N Faldo (Eng); Third place (18 holes) 12pm I Woosnam (Wal) v N Price (Zim).

(Photograph omitted)