James Lawton: Poulter repays Faldo’s gamble
Saturday 20 September 2008
There were moments yesterday when the captaincy of Europe was not the final glory of Nick Faldo's brilliant career but a late and deadly ambush of both his dreams and his reputation as a serious man of golf.
Ridiculed for his perceived arrogance, needled constantly by his American opposite number Paul Azinger – a man carrying old wounds from the day Faldo wore him down for the Claret Jug of the Open at Muirfield 21 years ago – Faldo found only a version of purgatory in the blue-grass country as he watched his team buckle to the point of collapse. But if the greatest golfer Europe has ever known suffered almost unrelenting humiliation, no one could say that he was without any kind of redemption – especially in the matter of facing down his critics in the most controversial decision of his troubled reign.
Faldo proved that he could at least pick a winner cast in his own, win-and-be-damned style,
Ian Poulter, roundly labelled Faldo's pampered and somewhat arrogant pet, supplied the acts of defiance which said that American re-possession of the old trophy for the first time in four attempts was not as inevitable as it was beginning to seem.
First he did it with a sublime chip shot into the 16th green that stopped dead the symphony of cheers that had been rolling across the beautiful, rolling course almost continuously once the initially shell-shocked early morning American troops, Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim, and Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan, fought back after being threatened with almost formal destruction by the dominant Padraig Harrington and Paul Casey and their partners Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson.
Faldo, his face a dense mask of growing tension as American red began to spread across the scoreboard, punched the air when Poulter delivered the kind of poise which made him such a force at the Open and persuaded Faldo that he might just be the man to inject new panache and swagger into the old order of European supremacy.
But it was, for some time, an unsustained piece of resistance after Poulter and then his partner Justin Rose on the next hole brilliantly kept alive their chances of winning the pivotal third foursomes match of the morning over Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell, one that earlier they appeared to have enveloped with some wonderfully assured play which left them three up after six holes. Faldo had to wait until late in America's day – their first winning opener since 1995 – for the confirmation that he had been right to insist on Poulter's presence as a wild card. The evidence was provided in a brilliant five-birdie contribution with Rose to a dusk 4 and 2 victory over Steve Stricker and 2003 Open winner Ben Curtis.
This was exactly the dimension Faldo was seeking when he outraged the old pro locker room and overlooked the claims of the resurrected favourite – and surefire Ryder Cup performer – Darren Clarke in favour of the heavily coiffed and extrovert Poulter.
The way Faldo enacted the decision caused as much angry reaction as the thinking behind a move that was quite stunning in its dismissal of one of the most popular men in the game
Anger was compounded when Poulter put down his clubs and, it was suspected, sat down to await the formal offer to join the European team. That, though, was old history, and not least in Faldo's mind, when Poulter and Rose indeed injected a life and a confidence that had, to Faldo's plain alarm, deserted such sound foundation stones of success as Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
As Faldo raced his buggy around the course, with his son Matthew sitting alongside with a look of apprehension that was only marginally less pronounced than the captain's, he settled on his protégé Poulter and Rose as the point of recovery for European poise.
Despite the morning fightback of Cink and Campbell, that still seemed a stirring early possibility when first Poulter and then Rose unfurled those shots on the 16th and 17th that said they might still be the masters of their situation.
It was a pretty thought but as Faldo watched, his brow furrowed and his arms tightly folded, the build up of pressure on the rookies became unsupportable on the final hole.
Poulter and Rose three-putted on the 18th green before conceding defeat to opponents – who had spent so much of the match contemplating the moment when they would have to bend their knees – along with the critics who believed so fervently that by rejecting Clarke, along with the perennial Ryder Cup warrior Colin Montgomerie and elevating Poulter, Faldo had disastrously wrecked both the strength and the psychology of the serial European winners.
By the time of their defeat, however, Faldo had seen enough of the battling potential of the new pairing to give them a second run in the afternoon fourball, and he was brilliantly rewarded.
Faldo, naturally, refused to concede an inch to his intense rival Azinger, who had not exactly brought the glow of trans-Atlantic amiability to a brilliant point when he allowed local television to capture his advice to a group of locals that it was "OK to cheer when Europeans missed their putts."
Unfortunately, it was advice which was provided with plenty of exercise as the Americans worked their way to an early advantage. Gradually, the cheers grew in volume and frequency as Faldo attempted to put some fresh resistance into his troops.
Here, at last, was his true testing ground. However eccentric some of Faldo's public posturings this last week, his flooding emotion when he met the great Muhammad Ali and his exaggerated reactions to suggestions that the weight of his own achievements, and, perhaps, ego, might do much to squash the old European buoyancy and bonhomie, no one here has been inclined to question his ability to analyse the most crucial dynamics of any golfing contest.
Faldo once said, around about the time he was winning his sixth major and announcing his membership of the elite of world sport, "The public respond to great success and they realise it takes a lot to get to the top of the tree in sport... what they don't always quite understand is how hard it is to stay up there."
Plainly, the European golf public will have plenty of opportunity to acquaint themselves with the process over the next 24 hours.
Faldo has made some rather embarrassing lurches here over the last few days, but he has also insisted that ultimately success and failure will be decided by the will and the discipline of his players.
Here yesterday, that will and discipline came only in isolated spurts and no one was more spectacular in this category than the man who inevitably carried so much of Faldo's reputation for sound and dispassionate assessment of the differences between winners and loser.
His decision that at this point in their lives Poulter belongs more clearly in the first category than Darren Clarke suddenly becomes a point of harsh, and, unless things turn more positively here, maybe permanent judgment.
Right now, though, Poulter is a rather convincing reproduction of his master's voice and style. Astonishingly, he may also be his best hope of escaping the worst consequences of a terrible ambush.
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