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Coming to America, Part II

England's Nick Faldo has rejoined the PGA Tour in hopes of regaining his spot atop the world rankings

An aura is notsomething you want to lose or misplace. After all, getting a replacement is noeasy matter.

There was a timenot too long ago when Nick Faldo had a real aura about him. He was theiron-willed dynamo, a lethal blend of robotics and seething passion. Faldo waspositively Hoganesque in his icy exterior, his obsession with perfecting hisgolf swing, his meticulous practice regimen and, most of all, in his ability toraise the level of his game for the majors.

Beginning withhis runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in 1988, Faldo went five years withoutplacing out of the top 20 in the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open andthe PGA. During that period he won four of his five major championships (he hadalso won the 1987 British Open) and finished among the top five eight othertimes. He also regularly entertained early-season questions about thepossibility of achieving the Grand Slam.

Faldo was alsoperhaps the least-liked player among his peers, a consensus sour-puss who wasperceived as lacking tact or grace. Four of the men who in essence handedmajors to Faldo by making 11th-hour mistakes—Paul Azinger (the '87 BritishOpen), Scott Hoch (the '89 Masters), Raymond Floyd (the '90 Masters) and JohnCook (the '92 British Open)—felt that the Englishman conveyed little empathytoward them afterward. Other players complained that Faldo's conversationduring competitive rounds consisted of little more than barely audible grunts.Even Nick Price, who can honestly call himself a friend, once concluded thatFaldo simply has very little need for other people.

But in the lasttwo years Faldo has lost his aura. Price, the former No. 2 in swing guru DavidLeadbetter's stable, has taken over as the man of the majors, with Greg Normanalso sliding in to drop Faldo to No. 3 in the Sony Rankings. But moresignificant is the fact that Faldo—whose consistency was considered almosteerie when he was No. 1 in the Sony Rankings in 1992-94 for a record 81straight weeks—simply hasn't played well.

In contrast tothe fairways-and-greens machine who excelled at holing crucial putts, Faldo oflate has shown a sometimes shocking fragility at big moments. He has been proneto loose, off-line shots, most notably at last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont,where he missed fairways with irons off the tee and failed to make the cut in amajor for the first time since the 1987 U.S. Open. And Faldo has been hauntedby his putter; at times he is seemingly just a three-putt away from becoming acomplete head case on the greens.

"That's thething about this game—it goes up and down," says Faldo. "I set highstandards through 1990 and 1992, and if it always went like that, I'd take upthe long jump and be going 34 feet. But I definitely went through a lowperiod."

So at age 37,with his peak years dwindling, Faldo made a dramatic career move: He left hisnative European tour to rejoin the PGA Tour he had quit five years before. Lastweek, while Fred Couples, Price, Norman and a host of big names were duking itout in Dubai, Faldo debuted on the Tour in a different desert, playing in theNorthern Telecom Open in Tucson.

At first hisreception was frosty, literally—it snowed at Tucson National Golf Club onTuesday. But things warmed up quickly, and Faldo circulated comfortably amongthe rank and file, shooting a polite middle-of-the-pack nine-under 278, tofinish 25th.

"It's thestart of the new me," said Faldo playfully, but not so playfully that itobscured an element of truth. "I feel like Barbra Streisand coming outafter 25 years. We've both got big noses."

Faldo made thedecision to come back to America after he finished 32nd at last year's Masterswhile suffering fits on Augusta's glassy greens. Suddenly it no longer madesense to him to play a disjointed schedule in Europe and the rest of the worldand then struggle to catch up in the U.S. in the weeks before the Masters, theU.S. Open and the PGA.

"I just feltI wasn't prepared well enough, especially on the greens," says Faldo, wholast year switched to a cross-handed putting style. "I wasn't giving myselfenough of a chance."

To rejoin theU.S. Tour, Faldo had to swallow some pride. He had been a PGA Tour member from1981 to '89, but he left, along with Bernhard Langer, before the 1990 seasonwhen the Tour's policy board refused to reduce from 15 to 12 the minimum numberof tournaments required to retain membership. Under the Tour's rules Faldocould not rejoin for live years.

In that timeFaldo has continued to lobby the Tour to reduce the minimum, arguing that itwould help draw other international stars. But in September the policy boardonce again stayed with the status quo. "We just didn't sense enough reasonto change," says Rick Fehr, one of the board's four player directors."One thing people forget is that if the number for membership becomes 12,it very likely means the Tour is going to sec Price and Norman three fewertimes."

Faldo believesthat view is "shortsighted," but the Tour's firm stance made himsolidify his plans to spend 1995 in America. It was a decision consistent withFaldo's history of choosing his game over his ego or his pocketbook. Leavingthe European tour means walking away from more than $1 million in appearancefees this year, but Faldo has long maintained that the real reason he plays thegame is for "the little cups."

To put a few moreon his mantel, Faldo intends to take advantage of this country's superiorpractice facilities and more uniform course conditions. "1 think theelement of luck is taken out of winning over here," he says, contrastingconditions for golf on the PGA Tour with the difficult weather and sometimesfunky courses that are found in Europe. "It's purely done on your owngame."

Always a betterputter on fast greens, Faldo won't miss the often plodding pace of the surfacesin Europe. Neither will he miss the British tabloid press, with whom he has hadstormy relations ever since he was first labeled Nick Foldo in the early '80s.What Faldo has missed is the PGA Tour, where, under Leadbetter's direction, hetore down and then rebuilt the swing that put him in the record books. In animportant sense Faldo is returning to the roots of his success, and he isenthusiastic about the challenge.

"It's my 20thseason, and this is something new to get into," he said in Tucson."Instead of saying, 'Oh, boy, it's my 20th year; can I get out of bed inthe morning?' I've got something to get going for."

Faldo, whose wifeand three children have remained in the family home near London, has set upheadquarters near Orlando. He is currently renting a place in Lake Nona, onlytwo doors down from Leadbetter. with whom he spent two weeks before going toTucson.

"I think Nickis ready to play right now, where in the past he would come here and betinkering with something in preparation for a major," says Leadbettcr."He thrives on continuity and repetition, and this tour will give him that.If he can get a solid start, I think he will have a really good year."

At the very leastFaldo is off to a solid start with his peers in the U.S. The decision by aplayer of his caliber to uproot his life just to be able to play in America isa ringing endorsement that the PGA Tour is the best place to play in the world.Faldo also scored points by turning down the World Golf Tour. All in all, theman who was once reviled seems on his way to becoming one of the boys.

"I'm gladhe's going to play here," says Azinger. "It's another chance to gohead-to-head. Plus, it would be great if some of the younger players on theTour saw his work ethic. It might rub off on them."

Adds BruceLietzke, "When a guy like Faldo plays over here, it just reminds me why Itold my mother when I was 14 that all I wanted to do was play on the PGA Tour.My view has always been, the more competition the better. And Nick has alwaysconducted himself well."

Concludes Faldo,"I think we've all moved on."

Indeed, the newconsensus on Faldo among the American players is that he has become looser andmore open.

"Part of itmight be because he's not Number 1, but he's not that hard guy anymore,"says Hoch.

But according toMike Hulbert, who has gotten to know Faldo through their mutual associationwith Leadbetter, Faldo has long been misunderstood. "I've always consideredhim a friend whom I could count on for a favor," says Hulbert. "We'vegone to a few Magic games, and he's been a lot of fun. And I've never seen himturn down an autograph."

Leadbetterbelieves maturity has brought less self-centeredness. "Nick was so hard onhimself before that, at times it seemed he didn't care about anyone else,"says Leadbetter. "But he's realized you simply can't play at peak abilityevery time out, and he's enjoying life more. When the American players get toknow him better, I think he will fit in nicely."

Then again,winners generally hold themselves apart from the crowd, and Faldo is clearlyinterested in winning. When asked if any friendships he makes on the Tour willaffect his attitude in the upcoming Ryder Cup, Faldo joked, "Oh, no. I'llbecome mean and nasty that week." But he wasn't kidding when he insistedthat he will be trying to win all eight of the U.S. events he is scheduled toplay before the Masters.

"Everytournament is very important," says Faldo. "If they weren't, I wouldn'tbe doing this. I want to play as well as I can each week. I hope I can get on aroll and see what I can do."

If he'ssuccessful, whoever is in charge of such things just might give him back hisaura.





While he was away from the Tour, Faldo changed his putting grip but not his caddie, Fanny Sunneson.



[See caption above.]



Coming out of a rocky period, Faldo is looking for a smoother path on the PGA Tour this year.