When Henry Cotton won the Open Championship at Royal St George's in 1934 he closed his final round of 65 with three successive threes: par, birdie, birdie. If you are looking for omens, look no further than Nick Faldo's emulation of that run in his third round yesterday. Faldo's 67 was the lowest score of the week so far, moving him forward from eight to four over. "It was great golf," he said.
It was a round that reminded Faldo that he can still play. Twenty-four hours earlier, he wasn't sure. He found Friday embarrassing. "The galleries gave me great encouragement," he said, "but I couldn't get things going."
After driving into the right rough at the 17th, Faldo knew that he was staring down the barrel. Aware that eight over was the projected cut, he knew it would take an exceptional shot to keep him in contention for this Championship.
Faldo would describe the blow with a five-iron that led to a birdie as one of the best he had ever played.
These days, the 46-year-old three-time Open champion considers himself to be only semi-competitive: "I'm at a great stage in my career, out there just giving it the best I can," he added. "Of course I'm not the same golfer as 10 years ago, but occasionally I throw something in that reminds me I can still play."
What Faldo threw into his third round was a combination of experience and expertise applied to such good effect that the course, if not exactly tamed, was kept at bay. Going off early was a big advantage: "I didn't have any pressure, because it was the classic early-morning situation where you have a free run at it, you can just go and play, which was great."
Faldo remains an immensely popular player, and as news of his progress on the front nine spread, the galleries grew. Reaching the turn at two under, he was cheered on every tee and green: "The crowd has been fantastic all week,'' he said. "They were cheering so hard for me. It's been a real boost and given me a nice feeling."
In searing heat, the golf course was playing firmer and faster than on the first two days, providing the truest test of links play the competitors have known for many years. "It's rock hard," Faldo said, "and with the wind still blowing, it's tough. We just weren't prepared for it, it's rare to get a week like this in your whole career. You don't spend hours practising in conditions like these, because we just don't get them. I'm sure the other guys agree that it came as a shock. I certainly wasn't expecting it to be this firm.
"With the pin positions so wicked, set right next to or on bumps or holes, you are delighted to get within 20 feet. That's a very good shot. Within 10 feet, is a great shot."
Faldo was not in the mood to let a dropped shot at the 10th undermine the confidence he had carried from the first tee. This was no token appearance by a golden oldie. If only for a day, he was full of himself, firing back at the course to reclaim a shot with a birdie at the par-three 11th. Four-iron to 20 feet. One putt.
The irritation Faldo clearly felt after dropping another at the par-four 13th was channelled into positive thought and a perfect birdie at the next hole, as good as he could remember: driver, seven-iron to eight feet, one putt. A smile crossed Faldo's features. This was how it used to be when he was the man to beat in major championships.
Faldo struck again at the 17th: driver, three-iron to four feet, single putt. Birdie. This was fun. Just like old times. Given a great reception as he made his way between the stands that frame the 18th, Faldo heard a great roar go up when he knocked in a eight- footer to finish five under for the day.
Faldo's relations with reporters have frequently been subject to emotional disturbance, but time has mellowed him: "I was playing well and made a great finish. It wasn't what I expected. I got a lucky break with a three-iron at 17 when the ball ran up a bank and came back.
"I'm four over now; if the guys get on with it and play really well I could be eight back. On the other hand, you never know."
It is a time in Faldo's golfing life when energy is no longer plentiful: "If I play too much I wear myself out," he said. "I like getting myself ready to play rather than play, play, play, play." If he doesn't take time out to smell the roses, at least he glances in their direction.
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