How Faldo was reborn in the USA

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The Independent Online
WHEN they asked Nick Faldo on the eve of the US Masters what he missed most about home, the self-exiled superstar answered with a sardonic laugh: "Rain." The next day it poured down and Augusta was awash with sodden azaleas. As a man with a history of being favoured from above with his heart's desires, he ought to be more careful what he says.

Faldo is not easily dampened down these days, however, and certainly not here at the Augusta National, which has not only most of the ingredients you'd expect in paradise but is the most significant venue of his golfing life. As a 15-year-old he watched on television as Jack Nicklaus won the Masters in 1972 and immediately vowed to become a great player himself. He took two massive strides towards that fulfilment by winning successive Masters titles in 1989 and '90.

The fact that Nicklaus has won six and is still, at 55, capable of setting the Masters pace means that Faldo's achievement portfolio remains relatively slender; a realisation that became unbearable at this tournament (where else?) last year. He hadn't performed well the previous year, barely making the cut and finishing joint 39th. Last year he again scraped into the final rounds and ended in 32nd place.

On the plane home he talked to his wife Gill and his manager John Simpson and decided that the only true road back to the top of the world rankings, and to the addition of more major championships to the five he already has, was to be found in the United States. They agreed that he would play on the US Tour for most of this year but the family would stay in their Surrey home while they watched how the experiment worked out.

How Faldo fares this weekend will provide the most revealing evidence of his progress, but he has said that he is likely to do the same next year. He already appears to have been reborn as a player and a man after only 12 weeks. The sadness of being away from his family - he has three children aged between two and nine years and they recently came over with their mother to spend two weeks with him - has been, in some measure, compensated by the effect on his temperament, and he is more relaxed and self-assured than for years.

A man who tends to be regarded in his own country as a dour, impatient player addicted to hours of punishing practice and constant tinkering with his technique has perished in a blaze of behaviour that totally contradicts his former image. Even his fellow players back home were inclined to see him as a touch aloof and wrapped up in himself. Here he goes on fishing trips with Brad Bryant, one of the Tour's eccentric characters, and goes to pop concerts, basketball matches and has dinner with other players.

Viewer's of BBC's Sportsnight last Wednesday saw film of him cavorting with basketball mega-star Michael Jordan, and rock hero Huey Lewis is another of his pro-am partners. He is a regular on American TV plugging Mizuno clubs in a zany and popular advert, and one of his latest instructional videos has been rated one of the funniest ever.

In parallel to this personality conversion, Faldo's golf has been firmly placed back on the right tracks. After a slow start in Arizona in January, where the weather was more British than it is in Britain, he warmed to the sunshine in California and Florida. He won the Doral Open, finished second in the Honda Classic and fifth in the Nestl Invitational. He has already won almost half a million dollars and the crowds are very enthusiastic about his presence among them. Can this man, seen by the Americans as a cross between Ben Hogan and Bob Hope, be the same so often accused in the UK of lacking charisma? Have British Airways introduced a Faldo and Hyde drink on their Transatlantic crossings?

When a group of British golf writers put questions of a like nature to him last week, he replied: "I've been pretty much the same guy for the last five years but none of you have bothered to notice." I'm not here to defend the British golf writer, God bless him, but for the past five years Faldo has been under closer scrutiny by our fraternity than any other object outside licenced premises. And if there has been any misrepresentation of personality then it is due only to a failure of communication. The Press is not responsible for any image that comes across on television. There is also the point that what the Americans see as amusing does not always send the British into hysterics.

Faldo had long made no secret of his disappointment in those countrymen who report on his exploits and I have no doubt it played a part in his coming to America. When he announced his decision last summer he also upset some of his fellow players. That, again, was due to failing to explain properly the reasons behind the move. He talked about the sun on his back and the better courses in the States which was immediately construed as a slight on European courses. This wasn't his intention. He merely wanted to stay in one place for a sizeable part of the year and play and practise under conditions in which the three US majors are played. "My game needed the continuity and I am playing more consistently as a result. I think the people over here appreciate the commitment I've made," he said. "I'm just trying to be me. They don't have any preconceived ideas about me. They've given me a fresh start."

Some believe that his continued presence here will eventually pose a threat to the stability of the European Tour. If a stampede of top players followed him, it probably would. But that is unlikely and, in the meantime, it is better for our leading player to be happy and glorious in the States than miserable and unsuccessful back home, particularly in Ryder Cup year.

When he does come back to play, probably in the Volvo PGA at Wentworth in May, he will bring a fresh interest. Perhaps he will also bring his close friend Peter Jacobsen, who came to know Faldo on the European Tour in the '80s and has been eloquent on his behalf. "It is lonely at the top and the Press don't have a clue how hard this game is and how hard it is to stay on top," Jacobsen said last week. "Everybody thinks he is an iron-clad, no-sense-of-humour guy. I think he's one of the funniest guys I've met. Having him over here makes us better as players."

Jacobsen was his partner in the first round of the Masters as Faldo, sporting a Forrest Gump cap in the rain, began his assault. It was a solid performance but the putting was slightly awry, as on Friday. He went for an hour's putting practice with his coach, David Leadbetter. "I've told him to think of himself as a little boy again," said Leadbetter. "Just look at the putt and hit it like you did as a kid."

Faldo's relentless search for perfection has led him to the top of his profession - but so far from home.