Why are we surprised that within Nick Faldo lurks the emotional
equivalent of a bungee jumper? This is a man, after all, whose
history is filled with startling leaps, so why should his
approach to affairs of the heart be any different? Still,
Faldo's latest escapades have been most amazing. Antic
adventures. Giggly episodes. Romantic dinners. Sightseeing
trips. Above all, the tabloid divorce and the American
If there was any doubt that Faldo, one of the more single-minded
champions in golf annals, is once again embarking on a course of
radical change, it was removed by the sight of him cheerfully
steering a golf cart down a path at the Doral-Ryder Open last
week. At his side was 21-year-old Brenna Cepelak, the young
woman with whom Faldo has endured, in his words, "tabloid hell."
The simple and rather sweet fact of the matter was that they
were going fishing. Having finished practice for the day, Faldo
puttered into the Miami sunset with Cepelak, bound for a
back-links lake known for its bass. The idyllic scene seemed to
confirm that he is indeed intent on becoming a new man.
In the last four months Faldo, 38, has ended his marriage to
Gill, his wife of 10 years, and begun openly romancing Cepelak,
a former University of Arizona golfer who has dropped out of
school and put her collegiate career on hold. Faldo now faces an
acrimonious divorce proceeding that promises to cost him
millions. Gill has hired the same legal firm that represents
Diana, the Princess of Wales, and reportedly wants a
significantly larger share of Faldo's estimated $60 million in
earnings than the $12 million he is said to be offering.
Through it all Faldo, his family and Cepelak have been ravened
by the Fleet Street gutter press. He claims reporters have
sorted through his garbage, monitored his phone calls and
harassed his children, Natalie, 9, Matthew, 6, and Georgia, 2.
But Faldo is clearly determined to start his life over again, no
matter the consequences. "I knew it was going to screw me up for
a while, and it did," he says. "I was prepared for it. And now
we all have to carry on."
Faldo is doing more than just carrying on. He is playing his
best golf of the last two years, which is how long it has been
since he was the top-ranked player in the world. His performance
so far in 1996--his stroke average is 69.94--suggests that he
might be preparing to add to the five majors he won between 1987
and 1992. "He's got a bounce in his step and a sparkle," says
his coach, David Leadbetter. "He is happier and more content
than I've seen him in a long time, and from a golfing standpoint
he's in a better frame of mind than he has been in years. His
golf is a product of his happiness."
Faldo has yet to shoot a round over par this season. He was
second to Mark O'Meara at the Mercedes Championships; he shot a
final-round 64 at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif., to
finish eighth; and he was 28th at Doral. That kind of play,
Faldo agrees, is not unrelated to his state of mind. "It's
good," he says. "I'm happy, I think I've shown that. I'm having
a good time out there, on and off the golf course."
The reason for Faldo's contentment has a mass of blonde hair and
a pleasant manner. Cepelak is the daughter of a semiretired
Albuquerque businessman. Until she abruptly fled school in a
tabloid blaze last fall and began traveling the Tour with Faldo,
she was just another communications major, albeit one with a
single-digit handicap. They met when she introduced herself to
him while he was practicing at the Northern Telecom Open in
Tucson in January 1995, and apparently it was kismet. When
Arizona women's golf coach Rick LaRose was surveying prospects
for this season recently, he remarked, "We had one player drop
out, one transfer and one run off with Nick Faldo."
Friends speculate that the golf bond between Faldo and Cepelak
is strong. Gill is not as conversant in the game that has
obsessed Faldo since he turned pro at 19 in 1976. "Brenna's a
nice sweet girl, and they seem to be a good match," says
Leadbetter. As Cepelak strolls Doral's Blue Monster watching
Faldo's progress, she is polite but reticent. "No plans," she
says. "I'm just living day to day, trying to be happy." Faldo's
friends and colleagues agree that Cepelak seems good for him. He
appears more easygoing than in the past. During a recent
two-week break from the Tour, Faldo and Cepelak took in the
Daytona 500 and a shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center.
After his second round at Doral they went to a Miami Heat game
at which they held hands. They appear to have much in common,
despite the age difference.
Faldo's behavior is in marked contrast to what it was a year
ago. The Faldos refuse to discuss details of their marriage, but
it seems to have begun to unravel sometime before Nick decided
to play the PGA Tour full time in 1995. He spent much of last
season in the U.S. while Gill mostly stayed home in Surrey with
the children. Faldo turned in his poorest performance in the
majors in a decade, his best finish a 24th in the Masters.
Leadbetter attributes the slump to Faldo's unhappy situation at
home. "Obviously he was miserable in the marriage," Leadbetter
says. "He was trying to find his happiness on the golf course. A
lot had been brewing in him the last 18 months."
Faldo is fearless when it comes to change. Whether in his golf
game or in his domestic life, he has displayed a willingness to
start from scratch if it means improving his circumstances, no
matter what the short-term cost. He risked everything in 1985
when he rebuilt his swing with the help of Leadbetter. His first
marriage, to Melanie Rockall, ended in 1984 after 4 1/2 years in
a similarly abrupt fashion when Rockall discovered that Faldo
had checked into a hotel with someone posing as Mrs. Faldo. It
was, of course, Gill. "I can see parallels between what he has
done with his golf game and what he has done with his personal
life," Leadbetter says.
Faldo's ability to do whatever he feels is necessary sustained
him during a major psychodrama at the Ryder Cup. The Faldo union
was coming apart in public even as he was securing the Cup for
Europe. Outwardly he was the same steady player, the most
even-toned member of the team, while Gill played the loyal wife.
However, behind the scenes Gill's tears flowed along with the
champagne, as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Tim Rosaforte
describes in his forthcoming book on the Ryder Cup, Heartbreak
Hill. European captain Bernard Gallacher called their behavior
"a terrific professional performance by both of them."
Just as members of the European team, minus Faldo, who was
already in the States, and their wives were boarding the
Concorde for the trip to Rochester, N.Y., lurid headlines on
newsstands at London's Heathrow Airport blared that Faldo was
preparing to divorce his wife. Gill, who was to meet her husband
in Rochester, made the trip anyway. By the time the Europeans
arrived in upstate New York, Gill was so suspicious of the press
that when she couldn't find her hotel room key she had the locks
changed, fearing she would find reporters hiding in the closets.
Gill was a steadfast supporter throughout the matches. When
Faldo sank a four-foot putt on the last hole of his singles
match with Curtis Strange to give Europe its crucial lead, Gill
tried to embrace her husband, but she got only a halfhearted
As the European celebration swelled through the clubhouse and
continued into the evening, Gill was a forlorn figure, drinking
champagne by herself with no sign of her husband. During the
closing dinner Gill drifted to a group of American players. She
tried to talk to Fred Couples and Davis Love III about her
marriage, asking them to intercede with Faldo. Awkwardly they
tried to comfort her. Then she began hugging players and wives,
suggesting she wouldn't be seeing them again. "I hope this never
happens to you," she said to one of the wives. Suddenly Faldo
appeared at her shoulder. "All right, dear," he said smoothly
and led her away.
In early November, after attending a Celine Dion concert with
Gill and their two older children, Faldo left the family's $4.5
million mansion for his second home, near Orlando, which is his
U.S. base when he plays the Tour. The tabs were already going
berserk, identifying Cepelak and relating purported details of
their romance. Among the more tasteless headlines: FALDO SEDUCED
ME LIKE A TRUE ENGLISH GENT and NO SEX TILL THIRD DATE. Faldo
thought he was prepared for the onslaught, but it surprised him
nevertheless. "We expected the worst," Faldo says, "and that's
exactly what we got."
On campus at Arizona, Cepelak was all but physically attacked by
paparazzi. One day she had to ride to class in the trunk of a
friend's car. Two photographers, who burst into a classroom and
began snapping her picture, became so truculent that they were
arrested. In Surrey the media camped outside the family home and
tried to interview the children. All of which Faldo relates in
his typically phlegmatic fashion, with little outward indication
of outrage. While such stoicism might be a useful survival
tactic, his brand is not particularly attractive. It makes Faldo
seem almost bloodless: He left, with barely a backward glance,
yet another wife--and this time three children--for a younger
woman. Leadbetter says that in actuality the separation from his
children has been a lingering source of pain for Faldo and that
he tries to call them once a day. But Faldo might never be able
to undo the perception that he is as self-serving in his private
life as he is on the golf course.
Faldo and Cepelak have been able to travel largely unmolested in
the last few weeks and have obviously decided not to hide from
public view. Meanwhile Faldo has been able to refocus on his
game. After a disappointing opening round of even par at Doral,
he hit five buckets on the practice tee, until the sun had gone
down, sweat poured off him, and he had blown a dinner
engagement. "He wants to get it right," says Cepelak. So instead
of a big night at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, Faldo took
her to Chili's. So long as things remain comparatively peaceful,
it's a good bet that Faldo will contend for the Masters, toward
which he clearly is aiming. His always methodical preparation
coupled with his new happiness could mean another coming of age
and a third green jacket.
But the question Faldo must address at some point is, Just how
many new beginnings is one man allowed to have? Particularly
when they have such a dramatic effect on the people around him.
While Cepelak appears to be good for Faldo, as one Tour wife
delicately put it, "I hope he's good for her."
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Faldo didn't hesitate to break down his swing to improve his golf; now he is breaking up his family. [Nick Faldo]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Nick and Gill (with Seve and Carmen Ballesteros) hung on at the Ryder Cup. [Carmen Ballesteros, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, and Gill Faldo]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS Cepelak is a regular, and discreet, presence in Faldo's gallery this year. [Brenna Cepelak watching Nick Faldo golf]