Relaxed Faldo sets stall out early for Ryder Cup

By Andy Farrell
Friday 30 January 2004 01:00

Over the last couple of seasons players in their 40s winning tournaments have been almost as contagious as the current outbreak of avian flu. Neither is a bug Nick Faldo has managed to catch. Faldo has not won for seven years and is now 46.

But the six-time major champion, who became a father for the fourth time last year, is not of a mood for putting his feet up in Old Windsor just yet. At the start of a season when a 12th appearance in the Ryder Cup is his stated aim, his reply to such a suggestion would be printable but not necessarily pronounceable. Phuket. Faldo clearly loves the Thai island so much he has spent the last four weeks there.

Ernie Els and family had a holiday there last week and enjoyed themselves so much that the South African never once picked up a golf club in anger. Faldo did not get where he is today by succumbing to similar temptations. There cannot be a shady area beneath any banyan tree on the island which has remained divot-free.

The reward for Faldo came with a seven-under-par 65 in the opening round of the Johnnie Walker Classic here. Only Thomas Bjorn, who like Faldo was playing his first tournament for eight weeks, scored better with a 64. Ian Poulter, suffering from a pulled back muscle, was among those on six under par.

With the course in perfect condition but the rough particularly thick, this was ideal terrain for Faldo to plot his way around. He overcame an early bogey at the 11th - having started at the 10th - to turn in one under and then came home in 30 with six birdies, including four in a row from the second.

He was playing with Ben Curtis, the Open champion, who came home in 31 for a 68, and Els, the defending champion, who had a scrappy day with a 70. Els did, however, roll in a number of putts early in his round and that seemed to inspire Faldo.

"I was watching the way Ernie was brushing them in and it brought me to life," Faldo said. "I played aggressively and finished off the putts. It was a very good Day One of the new year."

The Phuket trip, he said, was about resting, training physically and then practising. Much of the last was done simply swinging a club in front of a mirror. He also played nine holes with friends late most afternoons, using only one ball and having one attempt at each putt, instead of endlessly fiddling after perfection.

Just before Christmas, Faldo was handed a lifetime achievement award by the PGA. "It was nice to be the first recipient but I didn't think that they were saying, 'Well done, that's your lot'. Definitely not. I've got some good goals this year. Obviously, the Ryder Cup is the main one and to do that, I've got to do some really good stuff."

Bjorn, after an eagle at the seventh where he hit a three-wood to a foot, was five under and could not quite believe his start to the season. He reached seven under after 10 and went into the clubhouse without the magic evaporating in the steamy temperatures.

The Dane has decided not to worry about the small flaws in his swing and has instead been working on his fitness in an attempt to strengthen his neck and shoulders, an area which has proved susceptible to injury.

One of his playing partners was Colin Montgomerie, who had to wait until the 16th for the first of two birdies and finished with a 73, nine strokes off the lead. The Scot says he wants to be travelling and playing but yesterday was one of those days when his body language was not offering a particularly accurate translation of that message.

JOHNNIE WALKER CLASSIC (Bangkok) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 64 T Bjorn (Den). 65 N Faldo. 66 I Poulter, S Gardiner (Aus), J Moseley (Aus), E Loar (US). 67 M Fraser (Aus), M Olander (Swe), T Jaidee (Tha), A Hansen (Den), D Smail (NZ). 68 P Meesawat (Tha), B Curtis (USA), S Yates, S Kjeldsen (Den), M Cunning (USA), M Doyle (Aus), D Lynn, Z Lian-wei (Ch), T Wiratchant (Tha). Selected: 70 E Els (SA), B Lane. 71 J Van de Velde (Fr). 72 L Westwood, I Woosnam, J Rose. 73 P Lawrie, C Montgomerie.

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