Placid Faldo is an easy Ryder

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The Independent Online

The leaderboard had a comfortably familiar look about it. There they all were: Ollie, Monty, Woosie and, er, Faldo, with perhaps only Ballesteros and Langer of Europe's standard-bearers these two last decades absent.

Nick Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal went out together, accompanied by a sizeable gallery to reflect their place in the hearts of the locals. Annika Sorenstam may have caused ripples in the Bible Belt on the other side of the Atlantic, but in the stiff-upper-lip stockbroker belt, Faldo is king.

Not that his subjects have forgotten that, long before Big Brother, the original Nasty Nick was prone to a tantrum or two at their expense. Faldo, at 45 and on his third marriage, is said to be a more placid character, so much so that he is an outside bet to be Ryder Cup captain in 2006. But those behind the ropes know they put a foot wrong on the gravel paths at their peril.

Faldo was addressing his second on the opening hole when - sharp intake of breath - a TV cameraman began noisily strapping himself to a nearby cherry-picker.

"Keep still," called Faldo, but the offender, with headphones clamped round his ears, was oblivious. "Throw something at him," shouted Faldo, but the smile on his face broke the tension. Indeed, most of the yelling at the irredeemably fidgety came from the only female to be seen striding the West Course: Fanny Sunesson, Faldo's caddie.

A marshal was waved out of the way on the third, and it seemed Faldo wanted to hurry things along. We cannot even rely on him to dawdle any more. Perhaps it was the thunderstorms forecast for mid-afternoon; they got through the first six holes in just over an hour.

It might have been quicker had not Faldo, whose former self might have flung a spectator a look suggesting he was about to get dragged into the rhododendrons, done the job for himself with a hooked tee-shot on the fourth. It cost the four-times former champion a penalty shot and the only bogey of his round.

Around the turn, Faldo found his form. Four birdies in six holes, reviving memories of his quartet of PGA titles, which were so long ago - the first in 1978, to be exact - that all the prize money put together would be £320,000 shy of today's winner's cheque. Olazabal could not buy a putt, but Faldo made a tricky three-footer on the sixth and kicked on. "I've played more rounds here than anywhere," reckoned Hertfordshire's finest. Experience counts, and, never mind the captaincy, Faldo still fancies playing the Ryder Cup next year at Oakland Hills.

Four pars from 13 to 16, then a delightful metal wood out of the light rough to the front of the green for birdie on 17. Sadly, 18 was a missed opportunity.

Pitching from the shadow of a mighty oak, Faldo found the green, but slid off to the left. "Twenty-five years I've been playing here," he said afterwards, "and I've never seen that borrow." With a 68, Faldo finished five shots off the lead of Trevor Immelman, who wasn't even born in 1978.

Was the margin too great? "I feel good and I want to give it a blast," Faldo said. "Make things happen, like the old days." And do the young guys ever ask him for advice? "No, luckily they're still scared of me," he joked.

Still lean, but not quite as mean, Faldo marches on.

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