James Lawton: As Sir Nick knows, truly great competitors have no need for popularity contests
Faldo lost the Ryder Cup but won by 10 up the George W Bush diplomatic medal
Tuesday 16 June 2009
In between winning his first and second US Masters' titles the future Sir Nick Faldo did not need telling that his ascent into the upper strata of world-class sport was not a matter of universal celebration back home.
On the clubhouse terrace in Houston, Texas, in 1990, shortly before he joined Jack Nicklaus as the only golfer ever to win-back-to-back green jackets, he offered one possible explanation. "The British people understand that it is hard to get to the top of any sport," he said, "but what I don't think they quite grasp is how hard it is to stay there.
"You have to make a lot of sacrifices, you have to get into a tunnel, and this doesn't make you a particularly sociable individual. But then if the choice is between being a very popular fellow who is happy for the rewards of one or two big successes or someone who is prepared to go his own way and hit millions of golf balls, I know what mine is."
What Faldo wasn't feeding into the computer, of course, was the fact that certain aspects of his nature might have brought mayhem to the Last Supper. The most common perception back then was that he was obsessed with himself, but this wasn't entirely true. His obsession was with what he did, and the accompanying need to do it as well as anyone possibly could. That in the process he was capable of displaying the sensitivity of an embattled rhino only contributed to the degree of his public relations failure.
For anyone who knew Faldo the boy, none of this could have come as a great surprise. As a 16-year-old prodigy he told a visitor to his home in Welwyn Garden City, "My greatest ambition in life is to turn myself into a golf machine. I don't care how many balls I have to hit, I want my swing to be perfect, I want everything to be perfect."
Many teenagers have had more disturbing ambitions, but they tend to be tempered and smoothed by time. Faldo's haven't been, as we saw so gruesomely in Kentucky last September when as Europe's Ryder Cup captain he lost the match but won, by 10 up with eight to play, the George W Bush diplomatic medal.
He alienated the Irish contingent before a ball was struck in anger with a light reference to the potato famine. When Muhammad Ali arrived on the course he was struck dumb with emotion. His worst critics said it was almost as though someone had told him that was the way to react. A more generous interpretation was that he was merely awe-struck by the presence of someone who had trod so often on the holy ground of his own existence – the terrain of sport's ultimate winners. However, despite all these reservations about the nature of Faldo the point to be made now, surely, is that his knighthood is thoroughly deserved and indeed, if we still have the ability to separate mere celebrity from the reality of truly great sports achievement, a matter for considerable rejoicing.
Faldo may not have entranced the sporting nation but in the winning of six majors he surely deepened its pride. This, you might have thought, would have over-ridden all other reactions to the weekend announcement. But of course it didn't.
Inevitably, there was as much disparagement as celebration, a development which reminded you of arguably one of the least uplifting episodes in the history of team sport. It came when Faldo, the eternal outsider, wrote a letter of encouragement to European Ryder Cup captain Mark James before the debacle in Boston in 1999. For sheer gracelessness, Faldo on his worst day might have struggled to match James's autobiography-enriching announcement that he had tossed the letter into the nearest rubbish bin.
It was not hard to detect a similar undercurrent of resentment in Kentucky, even if the problem was undoubtedly exaggerated by Faldo's generally hapless style. What emerged most strongly, though, was the old feeling that the European team, of which only Padraig Harrington had begun to walk in the steps of Faldo, had created the kind of clubby, comfort zone which had always been so inaccessible to Faldo.
No doubt that was largely the result of his own driven, socially clumsy ways, but maybe there was also a little corner of the team's psyche that still resented the ground that Faldo had put between himself and all his British rivals.
We may, who knows, have something of Faldo in the making of the great Wimbledon hope Andrew Murray. The Scotsman has huge talent but his single most obvious asset is his Faldo-like commitment to competing at the highest level. Certainly he doesn't play the popularity game with any great finesse; indeed one national newspaper greeted his historic triumph at Queen's with the request he might smile a little more.
As it happens, among the quirks of his character Faldo has a rather winning smile, but then it is also true that in the past it has mainly been reserved for moments of supreme personal triumph. He managed one at the weekend, naturally, and if some were less than beguiled as they reached into the ragbag of sneers that often accompany the progress of the true loners, he could hardly have cared less.
When the Queen says, Arise Sir Nick, she will only be telling him what he told himself so many years ago. To quibble with Faldo's knighthood is to confirm the worst aspect of the honours system. It is to say that it is nothing more than a reward for those who say the right things at all the right places. Faldo represents none of that. He is gauche, surly and his vision of the world rarely stretches beyond his own narrowly cut fairway. However, his achievements make an entirely different kind of statement.
They say that if you want something hard enough, and are prepared to work for it, anything is possible. If that isn't worth a place in the honours system, it is extremely hard to know what is.
Foster fits old-school keeper role like a glove
Even someone resolutely unimpressed by Twenty20 as an aid to the finest cricket skills has to concede that a nugget of pure gold was sieved by England's wicketkeeper James Foster in Sunday's defeat of the reigning champions India.
Foster's lightning stumping of India's big-hitting danger man Yuvraj Singh was widely seen as both a piece of brilliant skill and timing and quite possibly the key moment of a closely fought match.
It will also serve as a superb exhibit in the argument of all those who believe that the role of the gloveman has been ridiculously reduced in the real business of Test cricket.
Now it is apparently acceptable to have some rough adequacy behind the stumps if it is accompanied by the ability to knock off a few runs.
So far Foster's Test claims have been blunted by his lack of striking success at the batting crease. However, at Lord's he made the case that a crack wicketkeeper brings his own value to the action. What is the point of having bowlers skilful enough to draw a batsman from his ground if the man gathering the ball lacks the razor-sharp reflexes displayed by Foster? The game as it should be played is surely diminished.
Yuvraj had smitten two mighty sixes before Foster swooped so exquisitely. It was a mighty blow for England – and a celebration of one of the game's finest skills. It was finesse amid the mayhem and its worth should be recognised in the more serious business of the Ashes.
Caught napping on the inside track
For the man who knows everybody and everything in racing, the one you might call for the latest betting totals from the Hong Kong Racing Club or what happened of significance on any gallop you care to mention, Friday night carried a rare element of surprise.
Mike Dillon, whose official title of public relations chief of Ladbrokes scarcely covers the range of his duties as confidant of the entire game, was awarded the Reg Griffin Racing Personality of the Year award. Dillon hadn't heard a whisper.
Among the admirers calling to congratulate him were the fabled Irishmen J P McManus and John Magnier. Both were hugely amused that Dillon had missed out this particular piece of racing intelligence.
As Magnier related, McManus reminded him: "This is the guy who knows the names of your unnamed two-year-olds."
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