Golf: The 121st Open: The 121st Open: Surviving a classic challenge of stability

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The Independent Online
SO HOMER nodded but not a lot. For four holes in mid-round we began to think the unthinkable. Would Faldo crack?

He only looks superhuman, and the problem on the ninth would have sandbagged some of the best players at Delphi. Two terrific shots had got Nick to the fringe of the green on the right, with his partner John Cook just about as far away but more central. It's a par five, so 45 feet or not, some birdies ought to be on the wing.

Faldo played first and by his standards nearly made a fist of it. He didn't miss the pin by much, but he ran the ball a fraction past to leave himself a shortish but slightly tricky downhill putt to finish. Then Cook stood over his ball and all hell broke loose. Even though he had got to the halfway point of this Open second only to Faldo, Cook had stuck rigidly to a public promise that he was here only for fun and experience. He had dropped a shot at the third and despite getting one back at the fifth had come up short again at the seventh and so was back to eight under, five behind Faldo, when he shaped to chip at the flag at the ninth.

Thirty-five this July, Cook is a slightly jollier, more rumpled figure than Faldo, who is only three months his senior. He had a black and white striped sweater and black trousers, a shade baggier and less flat-stomach fitting than Faldo's colour co-ordinated purple and white check slacks. Cook clearly saw the ninth hole in black and white. He chipped the ball hard at the pin. Too hard.

It all happened too quickly to say the audience gasped when he hit it. But there was a sort of tutting noise as the ball bounced up towards the pin clearly bold enough to run at least 15 feet past. Then, smack, the ball hit the pin and dived deep into the hole as quick as any rat surprised of a morning. The crowd roared, an extraodinary gasping 'Hey that couldn't happen but it did' type of shout. Cook threw himself on his back and put his legs in the air. Faldo had to putt downhill for a five-foot birdie. He missed it.

You could feel the buzz continuing while the players shaped up to drive away towards the 10th. Faldo's tee shot was good, but he then put his second into the bunker on the left. One experienced observer muttered: 'Do you think we are about to see the wheels coming off?'

Cook was still walking on air and would have no trouble making his par. Faldo lifted his ball and a healthy blodge of sand out of the bunker and ran just four feet past. It looked easily sinkable. It wasn't.

At this stage the day before, Faldo had picked up a wave of confidence and form so sweet that he may never have another like it. 'I have never had such a good feeling in myself,' he had said charmingly afterwards. 'The crowd was enjoying it and I was enjoying pleasing them. It was wonderful.' It was not wonderful now.

This was a very public examination. The threatened bad weather had not come. Despite banks of blackening clouds and a gusting breeze that had the white horses dancing on the firth, the sun was out and there was a warmth in the air punctuated by a huge crashing thunderclap of applause from the match up ahead. Steve Pate had birdied again. He had drawn level.

In concentration the Faldo face screws itself up into a rodent- nosed picture of application. Maybe in the past the chivvying perfectionism has been taken to excess. But this was a classic challenge of his stability. He passed it.

Not without his moments. Standing on the green at the 11th there was suddenly a distraction as a distant and rather senior member of the Edinburgh constabulary was signalled very firmly to clear himself from the Faldo eyeline. It looked as if the nerves were niggling, but the putt found the hole.

Then there was the 12th. Standing directly behind Faldo as he set that drive soaring out westwards into Lothian was to see beauty in a single stroke. But confidence needed grafting. The second shot was a six-iron hit strong but out to the left where it clung to the sloping edge of the green. It was a difficult downhill 20-foot putt. But it was a chance for a birdie back.

There was a sudden hubbub in the crowd as the lens-laden photographers trudged like sherpas up the line. A hare had got up and was jinking back for freedom. Sheltered from the wind, the ground smelt warm and hay sweet. Faldo finished his relentless, pacing, crouching mantra of preparation, stood over his putt. And sank it.

He was back together. Of course not the sublime heights of Friday but from then on all the surety was still there. There was a potential crisis solved on the short 16th. But this once again was a great golfer in his pomp.

The finish was awesomely significant. A massive second shot on the 17th to take him right through to the far fringe of a green and a birdie easily claimed after an eagle only escaped by inches. The moment the ball dropped Faldo picked it up, tossed it to the ever- lugging Fanny Sunesson and strode out towards the 18th tee with a sense of purpose that was almost tangible. The drive and the second shot were flawless, and so there was a march up between the cheering stands which had dress- rehearsal written all over it. The tall, upright, ultra-focused Englishman holding up his right hand in almost military acknowledgement. The shorter, heavily-laden Swedish woman radiant at another triumph of yardage and club selection. The clock showed a quarter to seven. By this time tomorrow Muirfield could belong to them.

Two putts were needed but it was never going to be three. Cook had done well to climb out of a horrible bunker and make his par. There was a brief and sincere handshake but then Faldo locked that laser concentration on to his card, and as he walked past towards the marking hut and the string of media interviews you could see the tiredness on him.

He looked what he was. An athlete who had completed three massively demanding laps and despite a handsome lead has today to go round again. It will not be easy. There were times when he had not looked superhuman. But you can bet he's working at it.

(Photograph omitted)

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