The Open 2013: Nick Faldo still stirring up controversy at Muirfield

The six-times major winner tells Kevin Garside how his 1992 triumph there provoked a storm

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The Independent Online

It seemed like a good idea two months ago when he was flicking weights around in the gym. Back then he did not have to answer for the idea that he could still walk with champions. I’m Sir Nick Faldo. This is Muirfield, my place. Of course I can give it one more go. That reality is now two days away. So is his 56th birthday and the course at which he won twice and where he collected the third of his Claret Jugs is no longer a thing of memory. It is all too real, a different prospect under a July sun.

“When you see the test they have prepared for you, you start with grand ideas about survival, about how close to the cut you can get,” Faldo said. “That would be impressive for a guy that hasn’t hit a competitive shot for three years. If  I could [just] be relatively competitive. I’m trying to bust my buns and get to know this golf course because it’s like a main road out there, so hard and fast.”

Faldo last succumbed to the call of history three years ago  when he contested the Open  at St Andrews, where he won  his second Open in 1990.  “I thought that was about it.  I didn’t enjoy that.”

His grouping with US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson and American cheerleader Fred Couples offers at least divergent approaches should he require counselling on the way around. “If I’m feeling intense, you know, I’ll go and talk to Tom. If I want to feel relaxed, I’ll talk to Freddie.”  As ever the Faldo humour  reflex can cut as well as cheer. In the far off days of wedge haircuts and bad jumpers when Faldo last passed this way he addressed the nation from the heart of his bottom. There he stood on Muirfield’s 18th green in 1992, triumphant at the Open for a third time and sufficiently overwhelmed in the first rush of victory to let his detractors in the press have it. 

“I showed my little daughter – my Emma is still starting to learn what daddy did. We went on YouTube and pulled it up, and I actually start with ‘I want to thank the press from the bottom of my heart, no the heart of my bottom’. It was all in jest, all in fun. It was quite a good laugh.” That is not quite how the community of golf writers remember it. Not that they were offended  or surprised at his impromptu contribution to the book of victory speeches.

“I had a long haul through ’91. I won two majors in ’90. By ’91 they had said Faldo was finished. So I promptly won the tournament, so that was quite useful. I had a mini rebuild through the winter of ’91. It came out pretty good and I won, but nobody knows what you are doing off the golf course, practising, so that is all it was.”

Faldo’s credo was all about work ethic and an enthusiasm for new ideas. He made a household name of swing guru David Leadbetter such was the frequency with which he rebuilt that swing. His love of detail and the belief that the game could be reduced to its moving parts cleared the way for the generation of tech geeks that rule the range, of personal trainers who talk bio-mechanics over breakfast and sports psychologists whose neuro-bending lexicon can only be tolerated with the help of Paracetamol.

You’re right. Faldo would have been in his element today. “These kids have all this knowledge. It is not a guess any more. In our era we were still guessing. Don’t lift weights because you get too big, too tight. Now the physiotherapists on tour are doctors. It’s fascinating when you come and say this muscle is not working. They tell you why it’s not firing. They give you the rehab, the exercises, and that’s right up my street.”

Don’t get him started on TrackMan, the golf analyser. “I would love to go down in the morning, spend 30 minutes on TrackMan with a thought and a feeling. It either confirms yes or no [as to] what you are thinking. I used to beat a thousand balls for four hours in the morning, go off and play the first hole and say sod it [that’s not working] and head back to the practice green. Take a kid at 15 years old, there’s almost a blueprint of how to play this game. Physically we know how to train, technically the coaching has really improved. Obviously on the mental side it’s important to have a sports psychologist. He understands all your neurons, if you want to know what’s firing your neurons.”

Even without the accoutrements of the modern age, Faldo would take his era over this, and, of course, were they to somehow crack the physics of time travel, you know who would win. “You brought Seve, Greg, Pricey, Freddie, Olazabal, Langer, we were a pretty good era. If you brought us to now, we’d beat this lot easy. And we would look better doing it.” The latter remark was probably not a joke. When Narcissus sought his own reflection in the water, it might just have been Faldo he glimpsed.

Faldo’s six majors, three Opens and three Masters crowns, identify him as an exceptional golfer and an alpha competitor. It also gives him some  authority when casting his eyes across the field this week. And yes, he has answers for Rory McIlroy’s present ills and the difficulty experienced by Tiger Woods in majors.

Faldo questioned the wisdom of McIlroy’s switch of club manufacturer, believing it was a mistake to compromise performance on the altar of Nike’s millions. McIlroy has subsequently encountered management turbulence, an off-course complication adding to the difficulty of succeeding on it. “He’s still testing clubs and there is a lot going on in his mind. I always felt as my career went on I got involved in business and other things. Once your concentration goes… you need 100 per cent concentration, practising as well. The ideal thing is to go to the club at nine in the morning, hit balls all day and leave at five, thinking that was great. You have to do that. You have a window of opportunity. That’s my only words of wisdom to Rory. You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else. Hopefully, when you retire, 40s, 50s, you have another 40 years to enjoy it.”

With Woods the suggestion, according to Faldo, is a failing of that iron will in the major environment: “Tiger is in a different mode where he is winning regular tournaments, but he gets to majors and something happens. As I call it, the self-belief you have to have, maybe there’s a little dent in there. He hits the wrong shot at the wrong time, where before Tiger would hit the right shot at the right time.”

Faldo could not have reddened that rag any more had he dipped it into the blood of a thousand bulls. It is rarely dull when he is in the neighbourhood. We look forward to the response of Messrs McIlroy and Woods forthwith.