Nick Faldo: 'I remember it being the first time that my stomach churned all day'

Brian Viner Interviews: From winning his first Ryder Cup points just six years after picking up a club, Europe's captain in 2008 has seen it all - from the street-smart savvy of Tony Jacklin to the in-your-face passion of Seve Ballesteros
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The Independent Online

Nick Faldo might no longer be Europe's all-time leading Ryder Cup points-scorer by Sunday evening, not if Colin Montgomerie has a good three days at the K Club, but Faldo will have other things on his mind by then. By the time the captains, Ian Woosnam and Tom Lehman, have done with the congratulations and commiserations, the countdown to Faldo's own stint as European captain - at Valhalla, Kentucky, in 2008 - will have begun.

Yet he is not apprehensive, he insists, not even following the brouhaha that erupted when the rejected Thomas Bjorn labelled Woosnam's captaincy "pathetic", and Woosnam, in turn, said that he would never want to take the job again. "No, I'm not apprehensive at all," says Faldo, making himself comfortable on a capacious sofa at Sunningdale Golf Club. "I missed most of that because I was whizzing around the world at the time. And I've got a long way to go before I start my role. I have my own ideas about how I want to communicate with the players."

Whether this is a dig at his old partner Woosnam, whose communication skills were derided by Bjorn, is unclear. Probably not, because Faldo plainly does not want to rock any boats. Besides, his own communication skills have received plenty of criticism in the past, notably at Kiawah Island in 1991 when he offered little encouragement to his foursomes partner David Gilford, and the pair were walloped 7 and 6 by Paul Azinger and Mark O'Meara.

These days, Faldo actually makes a living as a communicator, and does it rather well. He is at the K Club commentating for Sky, but will not, he says, venture anywhere near the European team room. After all, he knows that even a simple good-luck message can fuel controversy. It is seven years since Mark James notoriously consigned his to the bin at Brookline, but the hurt lingers.

We'll come to Ryder Cups past and future, but to start with let's concentrate on the present. The Europeans have won four out of the last five; does he expect Woosnam's team to make it five out of six?

"Obviously, I hope so," he says. "But I think it's going to be a long, hard battle, especially if a bit of Irish weather comes in. There's this idea that wind and rain will help our guys, but America gets thrown an awful lot of funny weather, you know. Those guys play in all sorts of conditions. And they might have more rookies, but they all have the motivation of putting a feather in their cap by beating a Monty [Colin Montgomerie] or an Olly [Jose Maria Olazabal].

"Of course, there are certain advantages to playing in front of a home crowd, and the home captain can make little tweaks to the course to suit his players. I remember when Lee Trevino said his team were very happy with the golf course at The Belfry and they'd be even more comfortable if the greens were a little quicker, so Tony Jacklin said 'Right, blades up'." Faldo laughs. He means that the greenkeepers were ordered by Jacklin to restrain themselves with their mowers. "But having said that, these are top golfers who have to adapt to a new golf course every week. It's difficult to throw them a real curve ball."

Sticking with baseball metaphors, why is it, does he think, that Tiger Woods has never really stepped up to the plate in a Ryder Cup? Faldo has plenty of opinions about Woods, and by voicing some of them during a commentary for ABC during a tournament in San Diego last season - in particular, by suggesting that the Woods practice swing was too casual - he mightily displeased the world No 1. When they were duly paired together for the first two rounds of the Open at Hoylake, the media watched gleefully for signs of mutual antagonism. So a question to Faldo about Tiger is loaded with baggage.

"I don't know. It's a tough one, very difficult to answer. He's such a big scalp, so that's partly it. On paper, he's two-up on the first tee, but that can fire up his opponent, like it did [Costantino] Rocca years ago. At Valderrama, when [Lee] Westwood and I beat him and [Mark] O'Meara, the golf course just didn't suit him. He couldn't hit his driver how he wanted to because every fairway was lined with cork trees. But he's a much more experienced player now. This time he really needs to lead the team and I think he's ready to step up to do that."

Speaking of a course that suits, there has been plenty of speculation these last few days that the K Club's Palmer course, an American-style layout named after an American legend, might favour the visitors. Faldo, however, thinks that the only people not favoured by the course will be the spectators.

"I'm just not sure how they're going to get that many people round a tree-lined, lake-lined golf course. Ireland is famous for its links courses and I think it's a shame it hasn't gone to a links. Portmarnock, Portrush, Royal County Down, there's no shortage. It's all driven by marketing these days - that's why the Ryder Cup went to the good old Belfry, because it's the home of the PGA - but I'm sure they could still generate marketing and put the players on an awesome golf course. And links are much better for spectators. There are so many vantage points, which you need when you've got 20,000 people following four matches. I think people are going to be very disappointed at how much effort they've gone to and how little golf they will see."

Back in 1977, when he made his Ryder Cup debut, the competition was held in prime links country, at Royal Lytham St Annes. And he has further cause to remember '77, because at the tender age of 20 he defeated the Open champion, Tom Watson, in the singles, having, with Peter Oosterhuis, beaten Ray Floyd and Lou Graham in the foursomes, and Floyd and Jack Nicklaus in the fourballs. It was some debut, especially as he had picked up a golf club for the first time only six years earlier, famously inspired by the spectacle, on television at his modest home in Welwyn Garden City, of Nicklaus winning the US Masters.

"I remember it being the first time that my stomach churned all day," he says. "And I remember going up the fourth hole and outdriving Nicklaus. I was standing there thinking, 'Shit, I've just hit it 20 yards past Jack. Don't look back.' And against Watson I somehow hung on to a one-up lead coming down the last." A wistful look crosses his face. It is the look of a sportsman past his prime remembering youthful glories. "I must get a video of that. It would be great to see that again."

Faldo played in a further 10 Ryder Cups, giving him the all-time appearance record. He has played more matches, won more matches, and scored more points, than anyone in the venerable event's history. He also struck two of the most memorable Ryder Cup shots, an 18th-hole pitch to five feet, followed by a nerveless putt, in his singles match against Curtis Strange, at Oak Hill in 1995. That 93-yard pitch, he assures me, was the single most pressured shot of a career that included six major championship victories.

So if ever there was a man to ask for an insight into the demands of Ryder Cup matchplay, it is the man in front of me. Is it important, I ask him, to play the course rather than your opponent?

"It's a bit of both. I always aimed at the hole with every club. My thinking, even with three-iron in my hand, was that, 'If I hole this, we're out of here and on to the next". If I missed the green I'd be thinking, 'Chip it in". Obviously your game plan changes slightly if your opponent carves one out of bounds. But you've got to be careful. You can't assume he will take a six, he can still make a five and suddenly you're not as focused, so from the middle of the fairway you make five as well."

At 49, Faldo is still in tip-top shape and still has a commanding physical presence. When he had the golf game to go with his physique, not to mention his reputation for tunnel vision, he must have made an intimidating opponent. I ask whether he exploited all this on the first tee, telling him what Seve Ballesteros once told me, that in his prime he used to shoot his opponents a fiery look, simply to psych them out.

"You should have that look on your face all the time," says Faldo. "It's about self-confidence. You have to give the impression that you'll take anybody on, you don't care who it is. The bottom line is that you're a performer, and you've got to put your performance face on, even if it's not what you're feeling inside.

"There are other psychological tricks, but they can backfire. At Kiawah Island we went to a dinner where they announced they were going to show highlights of past Ryder Cups. I was really looking forward to seeing it, but they didn't show a single European player. It was the American team winning this, holing that, and that was like a red rag to a bull.

"Out on the course you can do things like upset your opponent's concentration by walking off the green a bit too soon, but all that is just messing around. Shoot less than them on each hole - that's the best way to win."

The simplicity of that winning formula is often overlooked amid the media frenzy that engulfs a Ryder Cup. The captain's pairings, and the order in which he sends out his men in the singles, are analysed like economic correspondents analyse the Budget, yet Faldo once told me that he felt the role of the captain was exaggerated. That, however, was before he was handed the job for 2008. Does he still feel the same?

"Well, at the end of the day you can't, as captain, hit the shots for them. But you've got to know when to pat one guy on the back, when to be in another guy's face. The tactics of Jacklin, the passion of Seve, the diplomacy of [Bernard] Gallacher, I'll be taking a little bit from all of them. But I have very strong ideas of my own on how to put two guys together. Not that I'm going to tell you what they are. The Americans might read this."

The notorious pairing of Woods and Phil Mickeson two years ago being perhaps the best example of how not to put two guys together?

"Yeah, for me he [the US captain Hal Sutton] missed a great emotional trick. He should have had a game plan. He should have said, 'For three practice rounds you're playing together, you're going to look like best buddies, and the world's going to talk about it. The media, the European team, will all be talking about it. And then, come Friday morning, you're not playing together ...

"There's a story about a famous Norwegian cross-country skier, who was coming to the end of his career, but had one more big race against all these young upstarts. So in practice he came out with only one pole. Everyone else was using two. He set off, and everyone's going, 'What the hell?' Then he went round a corner where he had two poles waiting, skied the course normally, but finished with only one pole again. Everyone talked about him for three days before the start of the competition, which of course he won.

"The others had lost their own focus and given it to him. That's what I think Sutton should have done." A chuckle. "For me that would have been fun."

The Ryder Cup begins today and is live on Sky Sports HD, Sky Mobile and Sky Broadband

The Ryder Cup record-breaker

Most Appearances:

Nick Faldo 11

Christy O'Connor Snr 10

Bernhard Langer 10

Most Matches:

Nick Faldo 46

Bernhard Langer 42

Most Matches Won:

Nick Faldo 23

Arnold Palmer 22

Most Points Won:

Nick Faldo 25

Bernhard Langer 24