Countdown to the Ryder Cup: The Faldo factor

Always a controverisial choice, Europe's captain is already raising eyebrows with his unconventional manner. James Lawton reports from Kentucky

No matter how well a man anticipates the punch there is still the shock of its impact and though Nick Faldo had plainly been waiting for this one since he was appointed three-and-a-half years ago much of the blood in the face of Europe's Ryder Cup captain still drained away.

Couched in mildly flattering terms, it went to the heart of the question that has long surrounded Britain's greatest golfer.

Decoded, it asked whether Europe, runaway winners on the last three occasions, can last three days of concentrated Faldo without losing the will to fight as a team – not to mention any retaining of the will to live.

An overstatement of the old abrasive quality of Faldo, winner of six majors and a record haul of Ryder Cup points, and the difficulty with which some of the top European players are adapting to his new personality?

Not if you listen to some of the background noises and rumours here, which include the suggestion that the heads of the European PGA have been outraged by Faldo's quirky, sometimes flippant and perhaps even disrespectful approach to a key element of the job, team selection.

Inevitably Faldo's expression deepened into a profound scowl when the full question unfolded: "The Europeans have always thrived on team spirit and unity and people are wondering, because you have such a dominant personality yourself, whether you'll be able to avoid doing anything to damage that sense of team unity and experience?" And then, the dagger blow: "Are you confident you can detach your own ego from managing the team over the next few days?"

Faldo, who had earlier been in what would have passed as a whimsical mood in those days back in the Eighties and Nineties when he appeared to live with the greatest success entirely in his own competitive ambience, glared – and said: "I am – very confident I won't damage the team." And then again: "I'm very confident I won't damage the team. I think the way I've been talking right now, there isn't [a problem] – the way the team is formulating with these guys. I've got a dozen characters in there and obviously we haven't even touched on [Miguel Angel] Jimenez and [Ian] Poulter. I'm the quiet one in the team-room right now."

One question hanging in the soft summer air – now that Hurricane Ike has dwindled to its last few breezes – is whether Faldo has not already done the serious damage to the spirit of the European team which washed over the Americans at the K Club in County Kildare two years ago.

Then, the European captain Ian Woosnam, who had survived some pratfalls of his own, exploited personal popularity gathered down the years. But it was a reserve on which the swell of confidence and team spirit was always considered to be resting safely.

Here, the contradiction of Faldo the supreme winner and Faldo the captain who has already shown some chilling insensitivity with his treatment of European team fixtures like Colin Montgomerie and the currently resurgent Darren Clarke, seems to grow a little deeper with each passing day before Friday's start of the 37th tournament.

It concentrates on the rather bizarre prospect of an ultimate winner talking up the concept of team golf. Though some are inclined to scoff at the championing of such a cause by a man who scarcely uttered a word to his new and somewhat overawed partner David Gilford in the notoriously partisan American victory at Kiawah Island 17 years ago, Faldo is again dealing from a position of lonely eminence.

He may have been the walking antithesis of locker-room companionship, but there, when it was over, was his record mound of Ryder Cup points.

Yesterday he drove rather more boldly a friendlier question long into a fairway of controversy which is never more than a short iron away. He was asked, in view of his unsurpassed record in Ryder Cup play, "What does it take, is there a unique mindset to be successful in this individual versus individual play?" Faldo said: "There sure is. I think, you know, big heart, strong in mind and strong in battle."

He insists that the few days are going to be among the best of his sporting life. He will receive some support from his one assistant, Jose Maria Olazabal, but he believes that already he has struck the right mood of leadership merging with easy consultation. "You know," he said, "it's a wonderful feeling for me. I've had the official captaincy for two years after the K club and I was selected even before that. So it was a surreal day yesterday after so much thinking about it and then finally heading for the airport. Yeah, yesterday was a special feeling, travelling with the team and now we're off and running, and I'm just loving every minute of it."

Faldo produces his party line in a dizzying mix of fighting declaration and flippant aside.

This was the nonchalant Faldo: "The golf course is like a normal Tuesday golf course and with three days to go, we kind of predict it's going to dry and firm up and speed up. The guys are happy right now. They're out practising and doing their stuff. My plans for the day? Probably just head back and have a spot of lunch and an afternoon nap, something like that as I always do."

One moment Faldo is declaring an almost Cromwellian desire to drive on his new model army of golf. The next he is saying it will all unfold as easily as a stroll in the Kentucky woods.

"My first challenge was when I spoke to all the players last week and I said 'Who are you going to be comfortable playing with?' and then I marked all the initials down. And it was like a Rubik's Cube when I looked at it. But I've enjoyed working it all out. Really, I'm loving it. That's really obvious.

"I love being mother hen to this lot. It's really great. This is a special bunch. Even the wives are joining in. We had a questionnaire on the plane. The girls even came up with that. So everybody is into it. As Europe has always proved, the team spirit is instantly there. For me it's a constant juggling act, but, yes, I'm loving all of it."

Does he state this a little too much, and how convincing can a sudden enthusiasm for questionnaires and bonhomie be in a man who spent the formative years of his life shunning such pleasantries in pursuit of the single goal of individual success? Even when you ask the question, it is hard to ignore the prospect that haunts Nick Faldo. It is that the greatest Ryder Cup combatant, the most successful European golfer might just be seen as the man whose personality change brought only a crushing defeat.

There was not much sign of such fear when he drove his golf buggy across the course yesterday. But where was he going: to nurture his team – or for the anaesthetic of an afternoon nap? The mystery of Nick Faldo, plainly, has still much unraveling to do.

Faldo's Ryder Cup records

Most appearances in a team: Nick Faldo (11)

Most points: Faldo (25)

1977 GB & Ireland 71/2 pts Faldo 3 pts

1979 Europe 11 Faldo 3

1981 Europe 9 Faldo 1

1983 Europe 13 1/2 Faldo 4

1985 (winners) Europe 16 1/2 Faldo 0

1987 (winners) Europe 15 Faldo 3 1/2

1989 Europe 14 Faldo 2 1/2

1991 Europe 13 1/2 Faldo 1

1993 Europe 13 Faldo 3

1995 (winners) Europe 14 1/2 Faldo 2

1997 (winners) Europe 13 1/2 Faldo 2

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