Faldo sheds tears for fears of crown he didn't let go of

July 20, 1992|By Larry Eichel | Larry Eichel,Knight-Ridder

GULLANE, Scotland -- At the moment the agonizing melodrama ended, when the 121st British Open at Muirfield was well and truly his, Nick Faldo broke down and cried.

These were not a few select tears overflowing down the side of a cheek. This was a violent, all-out sob.

And the emotion was not the joy of victory but the relief of a man who, in the final nine holes, had survived a trip to his own personal hell.

First he led by three. Then, suddenly, he trailed by two. And finally, somehow, he wobbled off the course on buckling legs, the winner by one.

"It went from almost a disaster to the absolute ultimate," Faldo said later. "Sure, I thought I had blown it. If I had lost, having started the day with a four-shot lead, that would have required a pretty big plaster [Band-Aid]."

The other man in the saga did not cry. The other man was John Cook, the American who had the tournament in his grasp and let it slip away.

Cook led by two strokes with only two holes to go. And, playing a hole and a half ahead of Faldo, he came within the smallest of margins of slamming the door in the Englishman's face.

On the 71st hole, leading by a shot, Cook just missed a 30-foot eagle putt that almost surely would have won him his first major. Then, incredibly, he missed a 2 1/2 -footer coming back, failing to get the birdie that virtually would have assured him of a tie.

Finally, on the last hole, needing a par-4 to keep his chances alive, he hit his approach shot far to the right, putting it almost off the golf course. After making a good chip back, he missed an eight-foot putt for par.

VTC "I gave away the championship," said Cook, the gracious loser, after what he described as the most emotional round of his life. "I was alive, I was dead, I was 'really' alive, and then I was pretty much dead."

Characteristically, Faldo was not the gracious winner.

During the award ceremony, as he stood on the 18th green, grasping his trophy, the Claret Jug, he took the moment to attack sportswriters, television commentators and anyone else who ever had second-guessed his golf or his personality, which often has been described as arrogant.

To them, he offered thanks "from the bottom of my bottom." He said he could care less what anyone thought about him. Quoting Frank Sinatra, he sang, "I did it my way," with emphasis on the "my."

That sour note, though, could not detract from the emotional spectacular that came roaring out of nowhere in the closing stages of a championship that had been given up for dead.

For an hour late yesterday afternoon, the planned coronation of Nick Faldo turned into the nightmare of Nick Faldo.

The four-shot lead with which the Englishman had started the day began to erode almost immediately. Playing on a gray, blustery afternoon punctuated by violent bursts of rain, Faldo bogeyed the first hole and parred the next nine. Meanwhile, Cook, with a birdie on the third and an eagle on the fifth, climbed to 12-under, which left him only one shot off the lead.

But then Cook fell back with a bogey on No. 7. And then he double-bogeyed No. 9, the result of duck-hooking his drive over a stone wall and out of bounds. So Faldo, though struggling, made the turn three up.

"I knew it was going to be tough, and I was making it tough," Faldo said.

Then, rapidly, Faldo's lap of honor turned into a struggle for survival.

Cook birdied the 12th as Faldo, after hitting his approach shot into a greenside bunker, bogeyed No. 11. Now Cook was two back, as was Steve Pate, Faldo's playing partner, who would finish fourth, right behind Jose-Maria Olazabal.

On the 13th, Faldo three-putted from 30 feet, and the lead was down to one. Then, almost simultaneously, Cook birdied the 15th and Faldo, thanks to a visit to a fairway pot bunker, bogeyed the 14th.

The unthinkable had happened. Faldo, the leader since Friday, was in second place. When Cook birdied the par-3 16th, he was two up with two to play.

Faldo knew precisely what was going on. As he strode down the 15th fairway, his fifth major championship and third British Open disappearing before his eyes, he gave himself a talking-to.

"You better play the best four holes of your life right now," he told himself.

His next shot, a low, half-hit 5-iron to the 15th green, was a shot of such quality. It came to rest three feet from the pin. Faldo made the putt and was back within one.

Still, up ahead, on 17, Cook seemed to have matters in hand. Playing downwind, he reached the green in two on the par-5 hole. He was 30 feet away from a case-closing eagle.

The putt slipped 2 1/2 feet past the hole. Making the 2 1/2 -footer would have given Cook a birdie and kept the pressure firmly on Faldo.

"I thought it was going to break to the right," Cook said. "At least it caught the hole."

But it did not go in. And a chance for an eagle had become a par.

Cook composed himself sufficiently to hit a fine drive on the 18th, a long, tough, par-4. Now he stood in the fairway, 200 yards from the flag and unsure of what club to hit.

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