Faldo's display of cunning and insight sets ideal example

US Masters: Britain's greatest golfer digs deep to prove he is still a paragon of preparation and course management
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The Independent Online

Five years ago, when Darren Clarke was 28, he played a Masters round with Gary Player. The great champion liked the look of the big man's shot-making. But he was appalled by his shape. The old whippet's advice to the young lump could be paraphrased easily enough. "Look after yourself, get in shape and you can beat the world," rasped the driven Player.

Lee Westwood is now at the age when Player offered to Clarke his brusque assessment of what made the difference between a young player of talent and great money-making potential and a genuine champion. That advice remains on the table and Westwood, who, like Clarke, was never a factor in the 66th Masters formally mopped up by Tiger Woods, also has a pressing need to partake.

There is now an additional spur. It answers to the name of Nick Faldo. Britain's greatest golfer, who some feared might be finally undone by the new demands of Augusta National, is 16 years Westwood's senior. He is supposed to be in deep competitive crisis. He shot a dispiriting 75 in the first round. But then he fought quite magnificently to go one under par for the tournament, pick up a cheque for $98,000 (£68,500)and finish 10 strokes ahead of Westwood, who was once the shining white hope of the British game but on Sunday finished ahead of just one other player, the American journeyman Bob Estes.

For four ultimately testing days Faldo produced here nothing less than a working guide to the very best professionalism in action. Some have been a little disconcerted, or maybe disorientated, by what can only be described as a Faldo charm offensive. An amiable, wise-cracking Faldo is certainly a newish phenomenon, and some British golf writers were recently stunned when they caught the three-times Masters champion in a mood so reflective he even expressed regret for his speech of bitter recrimination aimed at the media following his third Open triumph at Muirfield in 1992. The cynical reaction might be that Faldo's re-assessment of life's deeper values have only come on the backslope of his glory, but that is to miss the point – and the essential nature of Faldo. At no stage of the softening of a harsh image has he relaxed his need to play golf consistent with a man who, at six, is just one major title victory short of the mark of such titans as Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Harry Vardon.

Arnold Palmer, who won just three more majors than Faldo, was given the farewell of an American Caesar here at the weekend. In Britain, Faldo's reward has mostly been a peevish concession of his ability to win great tournaments. He is a hero who has received mostly grudging honour.

In the end, though, that is likely to matter much less to him than the fact that he has been able to carry into middle age a golf game still irrigated by ambition and superb shot selection. It was no coincidence that the toughening of the Augusta course should coincide with Faldo's best performance here since he reeled in Greg Norman for his third Masters title six years ago. The new demands, Faldo grasped instantly, were not simply about hitting the ball further but with more insight, more cunning, more understanding of the percentages of reward. One statistic glows from Faldo's work here. He led in driving accuracy, finding 47 of 56 fairways – 83.9 per cent.

On that unpromising first day he could still see that he retained the ability to at least survive on the scene of some of his greatest triumphs. He said that if somebody had come down from another planet for his first Masters he would have to say that it was a great golf course. "I think I can do better," said Faldo. "I like the way I'm approaching my shots." On the following day he shot a 67 filled with intelligence and hope. Only Woods (66) and Vijay Singh (65) shot less over the four days.

It was a glorious re-statement by a great professional bravely addressing the shortening of his days as a leading figure in the game and will surely have enhanced his hopes of being invited to the US Open later this year. That would be one reward for his latest attempt to refashion his game. Another would be acknowledgement from some of the younger, under-achieving stars of British golf that there is no effective substitute for the Faldo approach.

On the evidence of this Augusta, that lesson has been absorbed most significantly by the resolute Dubliner Padraig Harrington. Before submitting, along with the rest of the field, to the supremacy of Woods along the back nine, Harrington was always involved at the sharp end of the battle. He birdied the 17th to go six-under for the tournament. He slaved on the practice range.

Faldo was exhausted on Sunday night. His words had a staccato rhythm but the sense of them was as consistent as the play which had preceded them. "I'm knackered," he said. "The course played long and was very demanding, but it was also great and I know I've done some good things this week. One goal was to play well enough to get an invite from the US Open, and I'm hopeful about that. There is quite a lot of pressure at the Masters, and that has increased with the changes to the course. You really have to think your way around it, and I like that. It's tiring, sure, but it's also rewarding when you feel you have done a pretty good job."

The job Faldo did bestowed benefit mostly on his own reputation and his chances of a more rewarding final phase of a superb career. But if British golf fails to grasp the significance of it, if it does not see it as a direct challenge to the comfort-zone existence of the likes of Westwood and Clarke it will be guilty of gross neglect.

Gary Player lectured on the need for the commitment of real champions. Nick Faldo just posted his score, in red, on the leaderboard of the new Augusta. It was a point devastatingly made.

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