It was an epic fantasy – Sir Nick Faldo coming back to the scene of two of his crowning Open Championship moments to once again do battle against the evil forces of Muirfield. The Lord of the Links. Return of the King. And all on his 56th birthday, too.
Faldo just had to be here, pulled out of retirement by the thought of one last hurrah on this fabled East Lothian links that he loves and where he won two of his three Claret Jugs in 1987 and 1992.
He bowed out of competitive golf at the 2010 Open at St Andrews to concentrate on his TV commentating career in the States along with his course-design business and Faldo Series, which includes Rory McIlroy as one of its champion graduates. But he had not made the weekend in any Opens since St Andrews in 2005. This was his lap of honour, a coronation for a Knight of the Realm and the King of Muirfield.
When he walked up the 18th green in that summer of ’87, he completed that remarkable final round of 18 straight pars to win. He is still the last Englishman to win the Open. Twenty-one years after that, he started bogey, bogey. One wag in the crowd suggested we might be about to witness Muirfield’s revenge and that Faldo would follow up with 18 straight bogeys. A birdie at the 3rd laid that to rest but Faldo still had to escape from a cavernous bunker in front of the 18th green and hole a knee-trembling three-foot putt to break 80 and post a score of eight over par.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’m here to enjoy. I did all right but the back nine just wore me out. You won’t be seeing me next year. No way,” he added with a grin. “St Andrews [in 2015] is my next port of call if I want it. Gotta pace myself.”
Faldo was greeted on to the first tee shortly after breakfast time yesterday by a rousing round of applause that sounded like the thousands packed in the grandstand and along the fairway ropes had brought their Rice Krispies with them. But there really wasn’t much snap, crackle or pop about Faldo’s game. His opening drive was fine enough but dribbled into the first cut of rough, then his approach veered horribly off line and his ball plummeted into a greenside bunker. Bogey was inevitable.
“It was scary going to the first tee. I really was nervous,” Faldo said. “Thought I’d done a good job putting it off, but you can’t. You know where you are. Delighted I nailed it. That view from the first tee looking down the fairway with the people in the grandstands and the crowd four-deep, that was pretty darned good. I’ll take that view as my shot of the day.”
Faldo had two legends for company: 1992 Masters champion, the easy-swinging Fred Couples, still cool at 53, and 63-year-old five-times Open champion Tom Watson, now puffing out his cheeks and limping from hip-replacement surgery. They were the “Geezer” and the “Wheezer” to Faldo the crowd “Pleezer”.
The Americans shot four-over-par 75s. All three struggled on the greens. Faldo was once British golf’s finest clutch putter. Yesterday he tucked a long putter under his armpit and against his belly and leaned on it like a crutch. Faldo strode up the first fairway of this nostalgic trip with his 1980s quiff flapping in the breeze followed by his disciples who clapped his every par (eight), bogey (six), double bogey (two) and occasional birdie (two). Two Scottish lads yelled their support for five hours from 9am. They set off with 24 cans of lager in a holdall. By the turn, they only had three left. “Come on Nick, you’ve still got it,” one of them shouted. Faldo smiled but looked like he could do with a stiff drink himself.