A funny thing happened while everyone was bemoaning the lack of a dominant figure in golf, awaiting the era of Seve or Curtis or Greg. The imperious Englishman with the impenetrable personality, Nick Faldo, retooled his swing and became one.
The revelation that golf is living in the era of Faldo finally dawned on people at the 119th British Open, held, as befits such a historic demarcation, at the home of golf, St. Andrews. The tournament seemed to have all the toothmarks of greatness until Faldo took the bite out of the whole affair—not to mention out of a major-championship pretender, henceforth known as the Nursing Shark—by coasting undramatically away from the field with his relentlessly masterful play.
Faldo's winning total of 270 (67-65-67-71) was five shots better than the scores posted by the second-place finishers, Payne Stewart and Mark McNulty, whose 13 unders would have been good enough to win every one of the previous 23 British Opens held at St. Andrews, beginning in 1873. How dominant was Faldo? His 18-under total is the lowest score in relation to par at a British Open by five strokes (Tom Watson was 13 under when he won at Muirfield in 1980). In 72 holes on the Old Course's immense, humpity-hippo greens, Faldo never three-putted. He hit into exactly one bunker, a feat as improbable as walking blindfolded down The Scores last week—a St. Andrews street that hosted teenage revelers into the wee hours every night—without kicking over an empty bottle. Faldo made only four bogeys in four rounds—three at the famous 17th, the Road Hole. And in last Saturday's head-to-head duel with Greg Norman, the man who somehow is still ranked as the top player in the world, Faldo left his rival quivering in a gill net of three-putts, beating him by a cruel nine shots.
Faldo's win at St. Andrews, coupled with his successful defense of his Masters championship in April, makes him the first golfer to win two majors in one year since Watson did so in 1982. And it could just as easily have been three. At Medinah in June, Faldo missed a U.S. Open playoff by one stroke when his putt on the 72nd hole rolled teasingly across the lip. Had it fallen and had Faldo beaten Hale Irwin's and Mike Donald's two-over-par 74s the next day—not exactly a farfetched hypothesis, given Faldo's 70.5 stroke average in his last 13 major championships—he now would be the first player to have completed the first three legs of a modern Grand Slam.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. If Lee Trevino hadn't chipped in to beat Jack Nicklaus out of a tie at Muirfield in 1972, the Bear, who had already won the Masters and U.S. Open that year, might have become the first modern Grand Slam winner. But there are no yips, shanks or three-putts about Faldo's record over the last four years. Since winning the British Open for the first time in 1987, Faldo has played in 12 more majors. Altogether he has won four, lost a fifth (the 1988 U.S. Open) in a playoff and finished among the top four eight times. If that isn't dominant, then the wind doesn't blow across the Firth of Forth.
Actually, the wind didn't blow across the Firth of Forth last week, at least not sufficiently to defend the honor of the Old Course. As recently as May, drought-stricken St. Andrews had been "bare as a badger's bottom," in the words of one resident. But frequent rains over the last six weeks turned the course green in time for the Open, transforming the huge brown fairways into positively lush carpets by hardscrabble Scottish standards. The softened greens held long approach shots, much as their U.S. cousins do, so that without a significant wind to battle, the players could fire their irons at the bottoms of the flags. A tournament-record 50 players (out of a field of 156) broke par on Thursday, which seemed pretty good until a staggering 86 more came in under 72 on Friday.
Among this group was Arnold Palmer, who was playing in his last British Open, 30 years after his first appearance at St. Andrews renewed American interest in the championship. His goal was to make the cut, and when, after his 71 on Friday, Palmer stood even par through 36 holes, it was generally assumed he had done so. Among those the old lion had beaten were Watson, defending champion Mark Calcavecchia, Seve Ballesteros, Chip Beck and Lanny Wadkins. However, golf is a remorseless and unsentimental foe, even at St. Andrews. The low scores started tumbling in, and when the tally was done, Palmer had missed the one-under-par cut by a single shot. The cut was three shots lower than any other in the Open's history.
Some heretics went so far as to suggest that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which oversees the Open, should remove the Old Course from the list of potential host sites, arguing that it no longer provides an adequate championship test. "Usually when the wind blows around here, even the seagulls walk," responded Faldo. "Come play it then. This is a great golf course because of the atmosphere."
Indeed, it's tough to hate a place where most of the bunkers have names: the Coffins, Hell bunker, the Beardies, Strath bunker and the Sands of Nakajima. That last one guards the Road Hole, where Tommy Nakajima took a nine in 1984. The 17th again lived up to its reputation as the most entertaining par 4 in golf. Scott Hoch, cruising along at two under par on Friday, drove out of bounds and ended up taking a nine, thereby missing the cut.
Peter Jacobsen, who played the rest of the course in 13 under, played the Road Hole like a man swinging a car jack. He was six over par on it, despite a birdie in the second round. On Thursday, when Jacobsen shot 68, he had to play sideways out of the Sands of Nakajima and took double bogey. Then on Sunday he carded a rare and humbling "snowman"—a quadruple-bogey eight. Jacobsen drove into the heather, batted four grounders to shortstop and finally reached the green by putting over a swale. When he finally reached the swale he was greeted by sarcastic applause—the folks who sit in the stands at 17 are golf's equivalent of auto-racing fans who wait for a wreck. Jacobsen raised his arms in triumph, but needed two more putts to escape.
The average score on the Road Hole for the tournament was 4.65. On Sunday, when 233 birdies were scored elsewhere, none was made at the 17th. Still, when viewed as a whole, this timeless course, made up of an amalgam of devilish bunkers, wide fairways, double greens, bumps, knolls and gorse, brings out the iron in a golfer's bloodline.
"The score is irrelevant," says Australia's Peter Thomson, a five-time British Open champion and a winner at St. Andrews in 1955. "The point is to find out who the best golfer is. Before this championship, there was a lot of debate over who was better, Faldo or Norman. Now there's certainly no question who's at the top of the tree."
The preliminaries went like this. Norman, long chastised by the press for getting off to slow starts in majors—of which he has won only one—shot 66-66 in the first two rounds to propel himself to the head of the field. Faldo, the pretournament favorite (London bookmakers had him teeing off at 7 to 1), shared the lead with Norman by shooting 67-65. Their closest pursuers trailed by four, so it looked as if a 36-hole duel had been fashioned between the two best players in the world. The billing invited comparisons to the 1977 classic at Turnberry between Watson and Nicklaus.
But on Saturday, Norman, unnerved perhaps by Faldo's opening birdie, three-putted the hole they call Dyke, and the leakage of strokes was on. Jerking his putts left like a man suffering fits of ague, Norman proceeded to three-jack the 9th, 10th, 12th, and 15th holes. He took 39 putts in all, drove into two bunkers, shot 40 on the back side and staggered off the 18th green nine strokes behind Faldo. Norman's 76 was the third-highest round of the day and his worst since his opening 78 at this year's Masters, a round, perhaps not coincidentally, he shot while paired with another great golfer named Nick—as in laus.
Faldo shot a majestic 67, walking the fairways like a usurper attending his own coronation. Here was a man who was in control of his game. Five years ago, in May 1985, Faldo was convinced that his swing would never hold up under the pressure of a major championship, so he flew to Florida and handed the swing over to teaching pro David Leadbetter, saying, basically, "Make it perfect."
Leadbetter, who will never find a more obsessive pupil, may have done so. The result is that Faldo seems almost mechanical when he plays, like a man who has learned the game by rote. After hitting a shot, be it a good one or the rare bad one, Faldo will often step aside and practice his backswing, pausing at the top to discuss the position of the club with his caddy, Fanny Sunesson, looking for all the world like some eight handicapper on a driving range.
Entering the final round with a five-stroke advantage over Stewart, who had shot three rounds of 68, and Ian Baker-Finch, Faldo gave a clinic on how to play golf from the front. He birdied the 1st hole from four feet, after having hit a nervy sand wedge over the Swilcan Burn, to increase his lead to six shots. Faldo gave that stroke back on the 4th hole, where he hit into his first and last bunker of the tournament, but he returned to 18 under par with a two-putt birdie on the easy par-5 5th. Then he settled down to a rock-solid string of eight straight two-putt pars.
About that time Stewart began making a move. It was difficult to tell just exactly what was meant, popularity or something else, by the wolf whistles Stewart attracted from the huge Scottish crowds. "You would certainly need to be paid large sums," wrote one journalist, referring to Stewart's endorsement contract with the NFL, "to make yourself look like a rest home for retired canaries." Not canaries, my good man. Birdies. And Stewart, who had chosen to dress like the entire NFL red-white-and-blue logo on Sunday, picked up four of them in the first 12 holes to move to within two shots of Faldo.
Stewart's situation was similar to, though somewhat less desperate than, the one Faldo faced during the last round of this year's Masters. Faldo trailed Raymond Floyd by four shots with six holes to play. So what did Faldo do? He birdied three of those last six holes to set up his victorious playoff. But the only thing anyone remembers is that Floyd gave away the championship by bogeying the 17th. At the 1989 Masters, Faldo shot the best final round of the tournament, an eye-popping 65, to get into the playoff with Hoch. However, the lasting memory of that day was the two-foot Hoch-as-in-choke putting fiasco.
The point is, it has taken longer than it should have for Faldo to be acclaimed as an outright winner. He is more than a star. The PGA Tour has plenty of those. He is a champion and a flat-out great golfer. Faldo has proved he can play with the lead; he has proved he can charge from behind; he has proved he can play on both sides of the Atlantic, on U.S. Open courses, British Open links courses, on soft greens and hard. He is the only player in the world today who can make those claims.
And Stewart? After getting himself into position to win, he bogeyed three of the final six holes, enabling Faldo to walk—no, run, a step ahead of the on-rushing mob—up the 18th with a five-stroke lead. The ensuing two-putt was a given. But the victory, well, that was a crowning achievement.
Faldo tamed St. Andrews's famed Old Course, though even he struggled at the Road Hole.
Stewart wore the Stars and Stripes into battle, but his rally died at the Coffins Sunday.
Fate robbed Norman of a birdie at the Road Hole Thursday; worse was to come Saturday.
Behind every great golfer there's a caddie, such as Sunesson, to help read the putts.