Once the leading man, Faldo in a different role

British: A three-time Open champion - twice at Muirfield - and former No. 1 player, Nick Faldo is on the way back up.

Golf

July 16, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GULLANE, Scotland - The last time a British Open was held here at Muirfield, Nick Faldo played the role to which Tiger Woods has now ascended. A decade ago, Faldo was the No. 1 golfer in the world and the most intimidating figure at a tournament he had won twice.

"I came here as the favorite. I was here with the intention of winning," Faldo said yesterday. "So that's very similar to what Tiger is thinking right now. He's the man to beat, and he's just got to be comfortable with the way he prepares."

When play begins Thursday in the 131st Open, Faldo will be trying to stop Woods the way the rest of the field attempted to stop Faldo in 1992. Given his one-stroke victory that year over PGA Tour veteran John Cook, Faldo hopes he is more successful in his plight than the others were back then.

Had it not been for his fifth-place finish in last month's U.S. Open on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., that followed a tie for fourth at the Volvo PGA Championship in his native England, Faldo's two victories here might have merely been a nice, little footnote this week.

Instead, Faldo is being mentioned as a possible long shot to end Woods' run at winning his third straight major championship this year and, perhaps, continuing his pursuit of completing golf's Grand Slam (Masters, U.S. and British opens, PGA) during the same calendar year with a victory in next month's PGA Championship.

"I got excited after the U.S. Open," Faldo said of his best finish in a major since a fourth place in the 1996 British Open. "But things haven't gone as planned. I was ill two weeks ago ...

"So it's going to be tough. I think it probably knocked me back a notch or two, and I have to get back in there and just play as well as I can first. We'll worry about that before we get any dizzy ideas."

Like winning his first major since the 1996 Masters and the seventh of his career. It has been a career that quickly deteriorated amid his second divorce, a highly publicized relationship with a University of Arizona student and, as importantly, the breakup with longtime swing teacher David Leadbetter.

"Obviously, I've been through quite a bit of a run off the course for about five years," said Faldo, who will turn 45 on Thursday. "Finally settling down with Valerie [his new wife] and putting together my business ideas ... so that has excited me as well. I've sort of gotten that off my chest."

The result: Faldo has put together a relatively successful season.

Though he hasn't won since coming back from a six-stroke deficit at the Masters - where he was the beneficiary of Greg Norman's infamous collapse - Faldo said he is as close to top form as he has been since his game and life went awry.

"Better golf has happened," said Faldo, who also finished tied for 14th at the Masters and is 16th on the European Tour's Order of Merit.

"I've been basically living out of a suitcase for five years. I've got a nice home life and a good bunch of friends around me, and all of a sudden somebody said, `Why don't you go play golf again?' And that's really been my mission this year."

Leadbetter recently said that, on a scale of 10, Faldo was about a 6 in his mechanics compared with a decade ago. He remembered the old Faldo - far removed from the "Foldo" nickname that wrapped around his neck like a mangled 7-iron, a player a bit haughty for many of his peers.

Those who recall his victory speech here a decade ago still wince at the memory of Faldo's thanking his "close friends from the heart of my bottom," then going from off-color to off-key in singing "My Way." Faldo admittedly was caught up in his celebrity and the standoffish character he had cultivated.

"Over the years, I think I've been ... just able to be myself," he said. "I think that's probably the fairest thing, following other people's ideas, and so it's kind of nice to be me. So I haven't really changed. I think I've been able to just open up and show what kind of person I am."

Like many players in his position, Faldo has spent time working on course design and developing a golf institute that carries his name.

But a player who completely redid his swing to become a major championship winner and Hall of Famer is still tinkering.

"Confidence is the most important thing, probably throughout the whole of my game," he said. "Now, I'm having to find ways to boost my confidence in different areas, so obviously I've had a good lift this year, but I'm sure it's nothing as confident as I was then. I was happy then because my golf was the world's No. 1 - to win majors, that was my life."

Coming back to Muirfield evokes thoughts of Faldo's victories here: shooting 18 straight pars in the final round to beat Paul Azinger and Rodger Davis by a stroke in 1987, and coming back from a two-stroke deficit to defeat Cook with two birdies and two pars in the final four holes in 1992.

"To play those four holes the way I did was as good a four holes as I've played," Faldo said yesterday.

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