Nick Faldo: 'I'm ready to lock horns'

Aloof and obsessive in pursuit of success as a player, the European Ryder Cup captain insists he has changed. He talks to Brian Viner about the journey he has been on and why he can inspire his team to thrive in the cauldron of Valhalla

On paper, nobody is better qualified than Nicholas Alexander Faldo MBE to lead the European team into the 37th Ryder Cup on Friday. Nobody on either side of the Atlantic has more Ryder Cup points to his name than Faldo's 25, or more appearances under his belt than Faldo's 11. But of course the Ryder Cup is not played on paper. And Faldo's lingering reputation as the most introspective of sportsmen, never really one of the boys, has never wholly recommended him as captaincy material.

Indeed, it was even suggested of his controversial wild-card picks that he favoured Ian Poulter over the in-form Darren Clarke and the Ryder Cup talisman Colin Montgomerie because Poulter was more likely to pay obeisance; that Clarke and Monty, knowing the abrasive and rather gauche version of Faldo might not show him due respect.

For what it's worth, I think this latter theory does Faldo a disservice. If anything emerges from our hour-long conversation it is his rock-solid determination to lift the cup in Louisville, Kentucky next Sunday evening, and the detailed thought he has given to making that happen, which includes the decision to add Poulter and Paul Casey to the team.

However, Faldo believes that he has said all he needs to say on the subject of the captain's picks. So let us focus instead on the issue of whether the qualities that made him the greatest British golfer of the last 100 years lend themselves to the captain's job. To his credit, Faldo does not deny that he was obsessive and aloof in pursuit of success, although he might wince at the sneer from his arch-critic Mark James that his idea of dinner out used to be a meal for one on his hotel balcony. On which subject, I don't suppose I'm the first person to ask what he will do next week should he receive a good-luck telegram from James (who as captain in 1999 notoriously consigned Faldo's greetings to the bin)? "You are the first, actually. I'll say thank you. I'm not going to waste emotional energy on that sort of stuff." Quite right too, but let's be blunt. Has he changed, enabling a famous loner to embrace the captaincy ethos?

"Yes," he says, and cites his work as a commentator for CBS Television in the United States. "There I'm one of the gang, which I really enjoy, and I've come to understand the psychology of a team game. I work with technicians, producers, directors, fellow announcers, and I have to leave my crown outside the production room. As for the Ryder Cup, is it a team event or an individual event? When Botham is at the crease is he playing for Botham or for England? My way of looking at it is that we have 12 individuals who form a team, who can do their bonding in the team room, but who all have individual needs. It's important for me to understand what those needs are."

It's natural enough for Faldo to stress the importance of his role, but I provocatively remind him that in an interview with me five years or so ago he rather poo-pooed the significance of a Ryder Cup captain, suggesting that it was hugely overstated.

The great man, and whatever his frailties he is indubitably that, does not flinch. "What I meant is that as captain you can give a big Winston Churchill speech, and the guys will go out and lose, or just tell them to get on with it, and they'll win. There will be situations like that." And what of the situations that he can dictate, for example the pairings in the fourballs and foursomes? He says he'll have a better idea of what might work once the team is in Louisville. "Do you put the Spaniards together, the Swedes together? Do you pick two guys who are compatible, or should you be a bit cheeky, and pick two guys with a bit of an edge? Maybe two best mates can get a bit soft."

Maybe, although I venture that the tactic of picking two men with friction between them backfired spectacularly in 2004 for the American captain Hal Sutton, who sent out Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to lead the charge, only to see them limp home. "Yeah, they missed a great opportunity there," says Faldo. "They should have put Phil and Tiger out in practice together Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The place would have been abuzz. And then not played them together, just to throw a curve ball." Is he working on a few curve balls himself? A chuckle. "I might try a few pre-tournament tactics, or I might decide that I don't want to bother with all that daft stuff."

There has been plenty of daft stuff already, as Faldo readily concedes. "Organising the gifts has caused the most drama. I want the players and caddies getting the same gifts, but that's breaking all the rules, apparently. The Cup committee says 'we've never done that before' and I say 'well, I'd like it done now'."

He got his own way, in the end, deploying the single-mindedness that won him few close friends but six major championships. Does he think, incidentally, that his record as a multiple major winner gives him, how shall I put it, an aura? "I hope so. And I hope I can use it to our advantage. I don't know how, but I'll find a way. I can have some fun with [his opposite number Paul] Azinger: 'six [majors] to one, OK, do I really need to be listening to what you're saying?' A few little digs."

I can just imagine, I say, how that will play with Azinger, an abrasive character himself. "Oh, we get on great. It's going to be fierce, and we'll go at each other with locked horns, but at the end of it all we'll be able to laugh. He's come up with this line that 'Nick's the prepared one, I'm doing nothing'. But he's changed the [qualifying] points system, changed the pick system, he's wondering how to set up the golf course. Believe me, he's thinking hard."

Tinkering with the course to favour the home team is one of the subtleties of the captaincy, though Faldo doubts whether one side can land an advantage. "He could make it US Open-style rough around the greens, or he could have it cut right down if he thinks our guys are better chippers. But it balances out. With some long hitters in his team he might widen fairways at 320 yards, to give his guys a chance to bomb it, but then I've got [Lee] Westwood, who's bombing it a mile, [Sergio] Garcia bombs it, [Henrik] Stenson bombs it..."

In the above-mentioned men Faldo has Cup experience, but he also has four debutants, who will look at their captain and see an unmatched Ryder Cup pedigree. He plans to put it to good use, he says. "I want to set the right level of intensity. You've got to be up for the Ryder Cup, you don't want it to come as a shock. The Ryder Cup comes in a mad rush, as soon as you walk through the gates. And at Valhalla the back nine will be a cauldron of spectators. It's tree-lined all the way, and that will make it claustrophobic. Louisville is pumped, really up for it, and I want our guys to be ready for that. I noticed at the K-Club [in 2006] how much the players are scrutinised, even in practice. A guy hits two bad shots and suddenly it's 'will he play, won't he?' That level of scrutiny is tough."

Of course, the most scrutinised golfer in the world will be conspicuous by his absence. Tiger Woods is still recuperating after knee surgery and Faldo still isn't sure whether to consider that a boon or a blow from the European perspective. "There are three ways of looking at it. The first is that Tiger's absence might rally their guys. They'll want to prove that they're a team without him. The second, though, is that Tiger's been bubbling under for whatever reasons in the Ryder Cup, so maybe this was the one where he was going to really play a blinder. The third thing is that their guys might have considered Tiger their banker, good for at least three points out of four, and if that doesn't happen it has a knock-on effect." So, on the whole, his absence is probably better for the US than for Europe? "Yeah, I think so."

This makes sense, given that Woods has never tried too hard to conceal his conviction that golf is not a natural team sport. But when I ask Faldo to recall the highest high and the lowest low of his own Cup career, he unwittingly implies the same thing.

"The high was 1987, winning over there for the first time. The low was '85 when we won for the first time in years and I didn't do my bit. I was coming to the end of my swing change, things hadn't quite clicked yet, but Tony [Jacklin] gave me a chance [as a wild card]. I just didn't perform, and when the guys were celebrating at the end, I couldn't. I didn't feel like part of the team."

This, as much as anything he says to me, offers some insight into the Faldo psyche. He still considers it entirely reasonable that he should have sat on his own, sulking, even while the team of which he was a part was hoisting the Cup for the first time since 1957. Indeed, in his autobiography, Life Swings, he criticises Jacklin for not putting a consoling arm round his shoulders.

Nevertheless, Jacklin was the man who presided over the Ryder Cup revival, and Faldo acknowledges it. "I remember him saying in '85 'this is where we're going to win, at six, seven, eight and nine'. So that's where he loaded it [with his strongest players]. I hope on Saturday night I'll be saying the same thing, although in the singles a lesser player always has a good chance of toppling a top guy. For professionals, 18 holes is a short race. You come out the blocks running, and whoosh..."

It was with such a whoosh that in 1975 Brian Barnes defeated Faldo's childhood hero, Jack Nicklaus, twice in one day. Six years earlier at Royal Birkdale, Nicklaus conceded a missable putt to Jacklin, and the Cup was tied. How will Faldo feel if one of his players follows suit at Valhalla? "In this day and age? Unlikely. But it would be a hell of a gesture. If the individual felt it was the right thing to do, I'd be comfortable with it."

Like hell he would.

Faldo v Azinger: History of a feud

1987 Azinger bogeys the last two holes in The Open at Muirfield and is crestfallen to lose by a shot to Nick Faldo, who pars all 18 holes of his final round. Faldo says to Azinger at the prize ceremony: "sorry about that, old boy," and his younger rival feels slighted. "I couldn't believe it," said Azinger years afterwards. "I had led the entire week and I confess that it hurt a little that he wasn't more consoling. I handed him the Claret Jug and I wanted to avenge that. I don't think he knew I existed."

1988 This time Azinger is upset by Faldo poking fun at his swing in a magazine piece. In his autobiography, Zinger, he recalled: " 'Can you imagine introducing Paul Azinger as a great champion?' Nick chortled as he imitated my grip and swing. Nick suggested that my swing would never hold up under the pressure of a major tournament, that I have 'a homemade grip and a hatchet swing'. Thanks, Nick."

1989 Azinger is partnering Chip Beck in a Ryder Cup fourball against Faldo and Ian Woosnam and he sees Faldo paying attention to the line of Beck's putt. Abruptly, he says: "I'll read my partner's putts, if you don't mind."

1993 This time Faldo provokes Azinger's fury by refusing to concede a meaningless putt when the pair contest the final singles match in the 1993 Ryder Cup. Europe have already lost the Cup by the time Azinger was lining up a six-foot putt to halve the hole and he expected his rival to shake hands. "That would have been a gracious gesture on Nick's part," wrote Azinger. "That made me mad." Azinger duly holed the putt to retain his undefeated record against Faldo in the Ryder Cup.

1995 Azinger has a dig at Faldo's slow play during the 1995 match. "They ought to invoke the same-day rule," he quips. Faldo has the last laugh as his last-hole victory over Curtis Strange secures Europe the victory.

2004 The pair are brought together again as co-summarisers on the American network, ABC. Their double act is a huge success with one feeding off the other, but soon Faldo emerges as the star. Later, Azinger admits: "Yeah, I've felt my accomplishments have been minimised in comparison with Nick's. I try to brush it off, brush it off, but that's a real feeling. There's always a little something there."

2008 The pally-pally act is blown out of the water with a toxic interview Azinger gives to the Mail on Sunday. Initially, Azinger says he was taken out of context but then the tape-recorded interview is released on the internet and Azinger is forced to make a swift apology to Faldo. It was the following quote which attracted the headlines. "Nick Faldo has tried to redefine himself. I'd say he is both who he is and who he was. Some people have bought it. Some have not. But if you're going to be a prick and everyone hates you, why do you think that just because you're trying to be cute and funny on air now that the same people are all going to start to like you?"

James Corrigan

Three questions for Soren Hansen

1. What do you think you'll bring to the Europe team in your Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla?

I think I'll bring consistency. I've done that for nearly two years now. There has not been a tournament in Europe where I have not knocked on the door during the weekend, so there's no reason why I shouldn't perform really well. I think I'm an easy fit as well. There's a lot of strong guys on that team and I fit in with everybody pretty well.

2. As the second Dane to play in the Ryder Cup have you asked the first, Thomas Bjorn, for any advice?

I've talked to Thomas throughout the year, about the nerve-racking walk from the range to the first tee – so I know all about that. I spoke to him the other day, and the conversation was more like mixing with the boys and enjoying the moment. It's been a joy to talk to somebody who has actually been there and done it.

3. Will Nick Faldo be a good captain?

I think he's going to be a great captain. I think it's a fairly young team, and he likes that, we are going to come together. We all have that picture of him lifting that trophy and bringing it back home on the plane. I'm so positive about everything about the Ryder Cup. I can't wait.

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