The relentless pain of fading glory
Nick Faldo describes it as The Tiger Show and he knows what he's talking about. "He's the best," the Englishman said, and just for a second he might have borrowed from Tina Turner. Better than all the rest, better than anyone. "He's mentally the toughest," Faldo added. "He's the most trained for what you have to put up with. He is in the same mode all the time."
Faldo has been there, done it and has got the tee peg. He drank from the old silver Claret Jug three times from 1987 to 1992 and that, he thought, as The Open's greatest Briton since Henry Cotton, entitled him to VIP treatment. What he did not want in the autumn of his playing career, and in the hottest Open since the scorched earth of Birkdale caught fire, was to be drawn with Tiger Woods.
A decade ago Faldo would have relished such a contest, but now he would need contact lenses to find the knuckleduster. It's an age thing, and when Old Father Time swings his scythe nobody survives the cut.
"I wasn't intending to put myself under that much pressure," Faldo said. " I was hoping to get a nice quiet draw, maybe with Mr Watson or Mr Ballesteros. That's what the crowd would have liked. Instead I got Tiger and got thrown into the deep end." Double jeopardy.
The real problem is that old golfers don't know when the die is cast. Golf - the designing of courses, commentating for television and sporting sponsors' logos - will still offer them a fabulous living, but playing the game at a major level and negotiating an Open Championship links, even in benign conditions, against players who are 20 years younger? Well, you suddenly realise that a ferry across the Mersey is a sentimental journey. Gerry and the heart pacemakers.
Faldo exited as he arrived, and it was not quietly. Inevitably, much had been made of his duel in the sun with Tiger because Faldo, commentating on TV in America, had dared to criticise the Woods swing when the greatest golfer on earth had sliced a two-iron to the final green at the Buick Invitational last year.
"What happened is all water under the bridge but with a few trout lying on the side," Faldo said last week. "What I said was what I'm paid to do." A keen angler, he knows the purpose of bait, but then he did not expect to be thrown into the deep end.
Tom Watson, whose love affair with The Open preceded Faldo's, made the halfway cut but, strangely, sounded more despon-dent than Faldo. "I am not playing particularly well," Watson said, as shown in yesterday's round of 75 which left the American just on the wrong side of par and was blighted by five bogeys coming home. "It has been a struggle. I am going to have to change something to get my swing working a lot better than it is. My body is not in very good shape right now."
It hasn't been in good shape for ages, but many players who have already walked past the John Lennon statue at the airport that carries the Beatle's name would have given anything to have been in Watson's loafers.
"You have to think on this golf course," Watson said. "There are certain holes where length really is important, length that I don't have. The number one gameplan is to stay out of the bunkers."
Some observers said that if the wind did not whip in off the Wirral, Hoylake would be eaten for breakfast. Watson, though, had a different menu. "If you are a little bit off on a course like this it can eat you for lunch," he said.
Faldo did not get to play with Mr Watson or Mr Ballesteros because the Royal & Ancient have not yet taken the Sunset Boulevard route which is so much favoured by the Big Ones in America, where the Arnie and Jack show ran until the varicose veins gave out. Old glories like Faldo, Watson, Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle will have to keep going for a few more years yet, at least until they realise that the people asking for their autographs have got to the course on a bus pass.
Nick and Seve did not leave Royal Liverpool empty-handed. Matthew Faldo and Baldomero Ballesteros were caddieing for their old men and, who knows, when The Open returns to Hoylake the sons may have become heirs to the throne.
"That's what keeps me going," Faldo said. "When your son is there you have got to keep doing the best you can. Matthew was great. He worked very hard. It's good for me and a big thrill for him. We managed to get a little memento from Tiger so that's pretty cool."
The relationship between Faldo and Woods was not as cordial as that between George Bush and Tony Blair, although there was a similarity in the pecking order. Tiger did not say, "Yo, Faldo" on the first tee and the Englishman did not ask him if the sweater was a good fit.
At the end, however, when they parted company, one to pack his bags, the other to get down to some serious business, Faldo said: "Tiger, as you're not using your driver, could Matthew have it?" In response there was a hint of a smile.
Faldo was making the point that Woods was conquering Royal Liverpool with nothing but irons. "He's got a good gameplan," Faldo acknowledged, "but actually there are some shots he is uncomfortable on. But he gets by because he is so physically strong and so mentally determined and such a great competitor."
Faldo, who will captain Europe in the Ryder Cup in America in 2008, found the experience of playing with Tiger interesting, but in the bottom of his heart he did not enjoy it. "I only had a week's practice and it was tough. I used to beat balls and hit millions of them to boost my confidence. I have only hit hundreds in the last week. Obviously my game is very rusty and that was hard work, so I don't think I will do that again to myself."
And then he sounded a bit like Admiral Nelson in the middle of Trafalgar Square. "A pigeon flew past and crapped on me and I guess that was the message. I knew something was coming."
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