Why does nick Faldo have to be like this? Why does he have to be this mechanical man with the wrinkle-proof sweater and smile-proof mouth and 75-proof swing? What is it that makes him want to be the world's most impeccable grouch? What makes him insist on playing his practice rounds alone? Why does he avoid his own playing partners like ground under repair? What makes Faldo want to do this terrific lifetime impression of Ben Hogan? It's true, you know. Every time Faldo says "nice shot" to somebody, they put up another pyramid in Egypt.
Why can't the real Nick Faldo let people in? Oh yeah, Faldo is real, all right. If you had been with him that week in 1988, dreading the ring of that phone, you would know. Every ring could have had the obstetrician on the other end saying the tests were positive. You try spending a week wondering every time the phone rings whether you're about to lose the son you haven't even met yet and see how mechanical you are.
You've never seen a mannequin cry? Faldo cries. He cries at movies. He cried at The Phantom of the Opera. He cries when his four-year-old daughter, Natalie, gets on the phone four weeks into one of his eight-week road trips and asks when he's coming home. He cried a lot during the years when he barely spoke to his first wife, Melanie, couldn't wait to leave the house, couldn't wait for a divorce, but was too British to admit he had blown his marriage. He has cried plenty after some of his try-to-break-the-world-record-for-hotel-room-golf-bag-kick sessions. Even Gill, his current wife, used to walk out of the hotel room when he got like that.
So what makes him hold back in public? How come he does his funny impressions only for his caddie? How come he's charming and witty and emotional only when nobody is around to write about it? When he was about to win the 1987 British Open, he sat in the scorer's trailer, head down, not willing to look at the television set and watch Paul Azinger miss the 30-foot putt that could have tied him. When Azinger missed it, Faldo cried like a baby. Yet he wiped away the tears, stiffened the lip and went to the press conference with all the emotion of a can of Lysol. Yeah, the tin man has a heart. So why can't anybody see it?
April 7, 1991
Good luck finding the inner Faldo when he tees up next week at the Masters. Much too much on the line there. He will be on history's footbridge. If he wins, he will be the first man to three-peat Augusta—and the first in 35 years to three-peat any major—and that means outclassing Nicklaus and Palmer and even Hogan himself. And should Faldo win, American golf fans will pour themselves tall hemlocks all around.
In this country Faldo is about as popular as cucumber sandwiches and warm beer. Greg Norman's face appears on everything but the $10 bill, but when was the last time you saw Faldo telling you which ball to hit? Maybe it's because Norman is out there making double eagle, double bogey, miracle par, hide-the-razor-blades triple bogey, and Faldo is going par-par-par-par. Faldo won that British Open over Azinger by making 18 straight pars on Sunday, wearing the same face you use while the banker goes over your loan application.
Maybe another reason he's unpopular is the way he ices people. Faldo is the only pro-am partner on tour who could make you beg for J.C. Snead. He is always walking five yards ahead of you, forcing you practically to jog to hold a conversation with him, which, of course, is the point. He has two moods: 1) annoyed, and 2) about to be annoyed. He is forever cursing the wind, the crowds, the photographers and the designer of this mess he's having to play in. "The one guy I hear the most complaints about from amateurs is Faldo," says one U.S. player. "They're always telling me, 'Who does this Faldo think he is?' "
Who he thinks he is, is maybe the greatest player in the world, and if he just made bogey, it was probably your fault. Over the first seven holes of this year's Australian Open, in Sydney, he yelled at a marshal, backed off putts twice because of some little annoyance, made another marshal move even though the man was 50 feet behind the hole, complained to the crowd about the greens and acted as if he was about to bury his club in the ground three times, only to pull back at the last second. Through those seven holes he was one over par. "To tell you the truth," says a golf reporter who is a friend of Faldo's, "I can't stand to watch him play."
Faldo's idea of dinner out is room service on the balcony. His putter is the leading cause of hotel carpet wear in the Western world. If you see him out with another pro, it must be your imagination. "Now hold on," says Faldo. "I have lots of friends on the tours—Nick Price, David Frost, Ian Baker-Finch."
Ian Baker-Finch? He is still steaming over the way Faldo treated him on the final day of last year's British Open. Each time Faldo would hit a shot, the spectators would scamper ahead to set up for his next shot, not waiting for Baker-Finch to hit. "Not once did Nick try to stop them," says Baker-Finch.
Nor did Faldo say two words to him the whole day. For instance, on the third hole, both players made tight little shots. "Nice shot," said Baker-Finch.
"Yeah," said Faldo.
Even Faldo's coach, David Leadbetter, admits Faldo is the anti-Chi Chi. "But he needs to be like that," says Leadbetter. "He can't be Lee Trevino and say 'good shot' every time. He's really not interested in anybody else's game."
Exactly. "I can understand having your game face on during the round," says a popular American player. "But with Nick, it doesn't matter where you see him, he's got the face on. Everything with him is stiff upper lip."
Of course, Faldo and most players do not exchange Christmas cards. Get Faldo in the same room with a group of PGA Tour stars, and the windchill gets dangerous. Here's Faldo on:
•Azinger's future—"It's hard to have a great champion with bad technique. It's like, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's the great champion, Paul Azinger!' " (He imitates Azinger's odd address to the ball.)
•Payne Stewart's American-flag shirt, which Stewart wore on the last day of the 1990 British Open—"That's like me wearing a pair of boxers with the Union Jack on them, sinking a 90-foot putt and dropping them."
•Curtis Strange's furrowed brow at last year's Skins Game, in which Strange won $220,000 and Faldo $70,000—"I could not believe how serious those guys were about it. I'd just won $350,000 in Japan [at the Japanese Skins Game], where Curtis got shut out, and I never mentioned that. Yet Curtis actually seemed proud he'd 'won' the thing."
•Norman's swing—"I have to be honest. I look at his swing, and it's got faults. Under the severest of pressure, will it hold up? It's way too loose."
•Norman's fascination with Nicklaus—"Some of what he does seems too obvious. Moving next door to Nicklaus. Tying up their boats together. 'Design my back garden, Jack.' But when he's playing with Nicklaus, he's always saying stuff like, 'Watch this. I'll fly Jack here. No problem.' I don't know if that's how you treat a friend."
Then again, what can the players do about it? Robo-Par is killing them. In 1990 Faldo won the Masters and the British Open and missed the U.S. Open playoff by one lip-out. He won the '89 Masters and the '87 British. In the 14 most recent majors, he has won four times, finished in the top four eight times and made every cut. In that same stretch, Norman has won zip, finished in the top four twice and missed four cuts. Seve Ballesteros: one win, one top four and three missed cuts. Strange: two wins, three top fours and four missed cuts. In last year's majors, Faldo was 22 shots better than anybody else. "He is dominating golf right now," says Nicklaus.
If Faldo keeps playing this well and acting this way, he will outdo Hogan as the most unloved champion in history. "Maybe I shouldn't care," he says.
Naturally, you'd be a fool to believe him.
Nick Faldo is throwing up. This is not easy for a Brit. Brits are proper, and their ties are never crooked, and things don't dribble from their chins. The British hate to be seen out of prim, and Faldo is only slightly more British than tea. This is a man who never wears a hat for fear it will disturb his hair. This is a man who trims his nails on Monday, and Monday only.
Nonetheless, he has his face in the barf bag on this ridiculously cramped and bumpy twin-propeller flight from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, and there is much dinner-revisiting. Still, he handles the situation with grace. Upon finishing, he wipes his handsome face with a Wet One, deposits it in the bag, neatly folds the top of the bag twice and hands it to the stewardess. Then he turns and says to an acquaintance, "Great fun, isn't it?"
The stupid thing is, in private Faldo is great fun. In private, he could not be more polite, chatty and amiable. He does impressions. For instance, Japanese journalists.
"Ahhhh, Misterfaldo!" he barks suddenly. "What is condition?"
"My condition is fine, thank you," Faldo replies to himself.
"Ahhhh, Misterfaldo! How would you like to play?"
"I would like to play well."
He does German star Bernhard Langer being interviewed by Masters chairman Hord Hardin.
Hardin [deep Southern drawl]: "Bern-ard, how do you pronounce your name, anyhow?"
Langer [like Colonel Klink]: "I am Bern-hart."
Hardin: "So, Bernie, how d'ya like the course today?"
Langer: "I sink see fairways ver much too narrow, and see greens much too hart."
Faldo loves gags. When bellhops unload his clubs from the limousine, they are shocked to find how heavy they are. What they don't know is that Faldo, the Anal-Retentive Golfer, carries two sets of clubs in his travel bag, in case he breaks something. "There must be something wrong with you, chap," he says softly to a bellhop. "My caddie is a girl, and she can lift it."
The girl, Fanny Sunesson, Faldo's unflappable Swedish sidekick, has become almost as famous as he is. "Fanny," he says to her, "do you know how humiliating it is to have people constantly say to you [he imitates a gruff voice], 'Give us an autograph, Mr. Faldo—and make sure it's below Fanny's.' "
He is inventive. During his affair with Gill, which finally broke up his first marriage, they once were stashed away in a Honolulu hotel room. The London press was bearing down. So when the phone rang, Faldo would answer it in his best butler's voice.
"Nick Faldo's quarters," he would say as stuffily as possible. "May I heeeeeelp you? Oh, I'm dreeeeeadfully sorry. Mr. Faldo's not in at the moment."
And the reporters bought it, too. Later he made the mistake of answering the phone in his own voice.
"Is a woman in your room?" asked a reporter.
Faldo looked at Gill, who was gazing out on the Pacific from the balcony. "No," said Faldo. "I can honestly say a woman is not in my room."
He is batty about horoscopes. He's a sucker for children. After he won the World Match Play in England in 1989, he gave the ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£100,000 to children's charities. He loves to trade gossip, drive his Porsche 911 too fast and pal around with Elton John. Unfortunately, the people who know all this about Faldo, you can count on the fingers of a one-armed man.
"If you are inside Nick's inner circle," says Mitchell Spearman, a friend and Leadbetter assistant, "you get to know what a great guy he is. Unfortunately, he hardly lets anybody inside the circle."
What makes Faldo such a good golfer—unwavering single-mindedness—may be the same thing that makes him so insular. Why should he give away anything to you, the player, or you, the reporter, or you, the amateur?
Faldo loves to tell about the famous British darts player who is also a card-carrying loner. He is the best in the country, yet he refuses to socialize with the other players and won't even stay at their hotel when he's playing with them on the English team. When asked once why he isn't closer to his compatriots, the darts player said, "The day they know everything about me is the day they beat me."
Faldo: "Everybody wants something different from me. 'Play like Seve. Charm like Arnold. Talk like Trevino.' Well, if they don't like it, tough. If they don't know me, tough. I've got to have something up my sleeve."
In Faldo's mind, giving of yourself is the same thing as giving away yourself, and he is much too obsessive to give anything up now. Whatever Faldo does, he is a beast about doing it perfectly. When he was given a new bicycle for his 12th birthday, he took it to the garage, dismantled it and put it back together again, just so he could know exactly how it worked.
This is a man who had a fireplace rebuilt in his new house because it was an inch and a quarter off center. He once told the people at his club manufacturers that the loft of a wedge they had sent him was slightly off. They assured him it was perfect. He assured them it was off. They measured it at the local pro shop and assured him nothing was wrong. He assured them they were wrong. When they took the wedge back to the lab, they discovered that it was .01 of an inch off.
But the trouble with being a perfectionist is that the people you meet cannot be taken back to the lab and ground down. Faldo trusts only those who have worked their way up, who are as mad about achievement as he is. "I hate people that have it all handed to them," he says.
If people do not try hard enough, want it badly enough, inspect it closely enough, then they will not be friends of the Faldos. "He looks at golfers going through bad times," says Gill, "and he thinks, They aren't dedicated enough."
Compared with Faldo, who is? Nearly every waking moment presents a chance to work on his swing. He is forever fussing with it, stopping in the middle of airports, fairways and sidewalks to check some tiny morsel of it. In his golf bag he keeps Polaroids of Leadbetter-approved swings so that he can study them during practice rounds. Engrossing dinner conversation to Faldo is a thorough discussion of spine angle in relation to back-swing torque. That alone gets him through to dessert.
"Sometimes it's amazing," he says. "I'll work for three hours hitting bunker shots and get this overpowering urge to stay in there for three more. So I will."
Freud once said that the boy who is the undisputed favorite of his mother has "the feeling of a conqueror," the confidence that he can achieve anything. If anybody was ever his mother's favorite, it was Faldo.
His mother, Joyce, grew up poor. Once when she was a young girl, she was invited to play at a fancy tennis club and left embarrassed and humiliated. "I haven't had the proper grounding [lessons]," she said to herself. She vowed then and there that if she ever had a child, it would be the only one, and she would fairly smother it in grounding.
She met a tall, quiet military policeman named George Faldo at a party outside London in 1946 and married him a year later. They moved into a small council house in a middle-class London suburb called Welwyn Garden City, and she bore him Nick—and only Nick—in 1957. By then the bookish George was an accountant at a chemical company, and his persuasive powers were no match for those of Joyce, who was tall, pretty and, says Nick, "could talk wallpaper off walls." She was dead set on serving Nick every kind of appetizer life could fit on a menu. She tried to interest him in acting. She took him to classical music concerts and to the opera. She took him to Harrods for the fashion shows. ("He has fantastic legs, you know," she says.) She took him to the zoo and to the museums. She bought him a recorder to play.
But the David Niven Starter Kit just didn't take. Nick fidgeted at concerts and suffered Harrods only for the sweets department. He stuffed tissue in the recorder so that it wouldn't work. What he loved was sports. Nick was that kid you hated in school, the one who was good at everything. He was a county-class swimmer, a wonderful canoeist and bicyclist, a terrific soccer goalie, runner, discus thrower, basketball player and cricket player. However, no sport captivated him until he saw Nicklaus play in the 1971 Masters on the telly. Nick was 14. Joyce offered to pay for golf lessons. Nick accepted.
When you think about it, golf is made for perfectionists. There are no teammates to screw up on defense. There are no opponents to send the ball back at you with topspin. There are no 24-second clocks, no screaming fans and no excuses. It is your problem and nobody else's if you're lying at the bottom of that lake in three.
Golf is also a loner's game, so Faldo knew he could play it. For three months he practiced hitting balls into a long-jump pit before he was taken to a course. "Where am I supposed to hit it?" he asked.
"Over there," his instructor said, pointing to the 1st fairway. To Faldo, something that huge looked impossible to miss, and it pretty much has been ever since. He shot a 78, not counting the penalty strokes he should have taken for losing three balls ("I didn't know what losing a ball meant," he says). He three-putted one green and thought, Well, I'll never do that again.
He wanted to quit school at 16 to pursue golf—without a full-time job—and his parents said, "By all means." All it meant was scrimping a little bit more on their scrimpings. They had never owned a new car, and that old coat would last one more year, wouldn't it? This way Nick could practice from dawn until dusk, eat the supper Joyce fixed for him and then drag her out to the patio, where he would watch the reflection of his swing in the kitchen window while Joyce, half frozen in her car coat and scarf, would try to tell him exactly what the part with the little lines on it was doing while he took the club back. This she suffered gladly.
By the time Nick was 18, he was among the best amateurs in Britain. He turned pro at 19 and got married at 21 to a pretty journalist named Melanie Rockall. They were total opposites. "Turns out that total-opposites bit only works for Paula Abdul," says Nick.
Melanie loved to travel. He loved home and garden. She loved parties. He loved home and garden. She wanted to learn everything about the world. He still had to putt for two hours. "We were very happily married for eight months," says Nick. "Unfortunately, we were married for 4½ years."
Melanie's problem was that she was no good at being Joyce. She could not organize her life around Nick's. She got fed up with traveling the tours, being satellite to the planet Nick. "I played secretary, press officer, maid and good little housewife," she once said. "Somewhere along the line I started thinking, There must be more to life than this."
"What could I do?" says Nick, throwing up his hands. "Golf was all I had."
Soon their relationship was toast. He wanted out, but she wouldn't leave the house near London. Neither would he. "If I leave first, she'll get to keep it," he told himself. So he tried to wait her out—Nick-style, stoic and button-lipped. He didn't even tell his parents.
But for some reason he began to confide in a voice on the end of a telephone line. It belonged to Gill Bennett, secretary to his agent. One day she told Nick, "If you ever need to talk, I'll listen." They arranged a meeting, and he poured everything out to her.
"It was amazing," he says. "After five minutes, we were making plans about the future."
In February 1984, still married to Melanie, he took Gill with him to the Hawaiian Open. When the press found out—as he knew it would—the divorce came and Faldo felt free. In Gill, Faldo had someone who didn't flinch when he said he was going to hit balls for the fourth hour that day. In Gill, he had someone who didn't mind running on Nick Standard Time.
Mothering came in handy those days, because Faldo was finding it hard to please Faldo. Perfectionists do not much go in for 11th place. He was in contention at the British Open at Birkdale for three days in 1983 but choked coming down the stretch and would not forgive himself. He won five European tournaments in '83 and Hilton Head in the U.S. in '84—a career for most players—but felt sick about his game. Six victories but no majors is all right if you want to do a thing well. However, six victories and no majors is bloody torture if you want to be perfect. So he did something pretty stupid and pretty desperate: He took what many people thought was the prettiest swing in Europe and trashed it. In 1985 he met with Leadbetter at his club in Grenelefe, Fla., and said, "Throw the book at me."
Leadbetter began the total redesign of his swing. Faldo worked harder than ever. He hit 1,500 shots a day, until his hands bled. He used up enough videotape for a Fellini film. He would break only for lunch. After six months he had fallen to 42nd on the European money list. This is like finishing behind the LaRouche candidate. He came back to Leadbetter, who smiled and said, "Right, then. Now we start work on the downswing."
Faldo became a beginner again. He would draw an imaginary line in the grass between the ball and his left heel, just to make sure he was lined up right. He took practice swings during tournaments, just like a 17 handicapper. In time, out of sheer repetition, his swing became a living monument to efficiency, simple and pure, with no wasted motion, no flying elbows or signature loops. He started to hit the ball low and laser-straight, which is the true path to the silver claret jug of the British Open. He became an exceptional short-iron player. His putting became so sharp that he is now considered second only to Ben Crenshaw in ability to hide little white balls in little round holes.
Yet when that two-year ordeal was over and Faldo had defeated Azinger with those 18 consecutive pars at Muirfield, he was still mocked. "People said I was playing defensively," he says. "But I was shaking trying to make those putts."
The package became complete in 1990, when Faldo fired his caddie, Andy Prodger, and hired Fanny. "She says more to me in one hole than Andy said to me in a week," says Faldo. Come to think of it, Fanny is a lot like Gill—fabulously efficient, nearly clairvoyant when it comes to his needs, chatty and ever cheerful.
At the '89 Masters, Faldo made eight birdies on the last day, plus one more on the second playoff hole to beat Scott Hoch in the dusk. What did he hear for that? Only how Hoch had gagged from two feet on the first playoff hole. What was Faldo but some foreigner who swept up after messy Americans? So he descended on the Masters again the next year, this time making up four shots in the last six holes, squashing the par 5s into par 4s and bearing down on the sentimental favorite, 47-year-old Raymond Floyd. Again Faldo found himself in a playoff, and again the tournament came down to No. 11, where, again, somebody cast a bone-head spell on the American. Floyd hit his drive, ducked into a portable toilet and then hurried his second shot. Faldo whispered to Fanny, "What's the rush?"
Floyd made a dreadful swing, sticking the toe of his seven-iron into the ground on the way down, producing a shot that might be duplicated only by Gerald Ford with a feathery. Faldo thought, My god, what has he done? The ball, humiliated, hid itself in the middle of a pond. Faldo had his matching green jackets. Yet, what was Faldo now but some foreign killjoy?
Then Faldo went to St. Andrews for the British Open. Paired with Norman in the lead on Saturday, he carved the Shark into sushi, 67-76, and went on to an alarming five-stroke win that included exactly zero three-putts on St. Andrews's massive greens. Well, I'll never do that again. The victory was Faldo's most glorious, for he had stomped the St. Andrews tournament record by six shots. This was no mop-up job. This was nothing but exquisite shot-making and very nice sweaters.
Of course, it didn't change Faldo at all the way Matthew did.
Melanie never gave him kids, but Gill bore him Natalie in 1986 and was pregnant again two years later. This time, though, Gill came home from amniocentesis looking red-eyed. The doctor had said it was possible that their son would be born with Down's syndrome.
So, how does a perfectionist handle Down's syndrome? How does that fit in? "We both believed, Gill and I, that life is hard enough without starting without a full set of marbles," says Nick. "It wouldn't be fair to try life like that, so we both believed, if the tests were positive, that we should abort it. But looking back on it now, who knows what we would have done."
The doctor promised to call in two days, but after three he hadn't. Nor after four. Nor after five, either. Every time the phone rang, Faldo thought, Is this the call that tells me it's all wrong? The tension was so thick that Nick and Gill could hardly stand to look at each other, much less talk about what they were going through. On the sixth day, Gill took Natalie to a birthday party just to try and forget for a while. Naturally, that's when the phone rang.
When Gill came back, Nick was waiting at the door with the world's widest grin. They both cried. Matthew was born, perfectly normal, in March 1989.
"I've grown up," says Nick. "I've gotten wiser. Before, maybe golf was everything to me. Now it's not. It's not the be-all and end-all. I know I'd trade it all in to keep my family—in a heartbeat."
Now Faldo is thinking maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world if he showed people he is not the latest offering from IBM. Maybe the man with 1,000 impressions could try doing himself. "I really would like to express myself more," he says. "I'm a totally different guy than I've been portrayed. I just can't seem to smile much on the course. I think of funny things to do, but I don't do them. Sometimes my wife will come down the stairs looking ravishing in a red dress, her hair all done up perfectly, and I'll think, My god, she looks so gorgeous. But before I can think to say it, she'll say [he imitates a high voice], 'Well, don't you think I look nice tonight?' Then it's too late, isn't it?"
He's got a lot of Joyce in there but a lot of George, too, and George usually wins. Maybe he's too British to change. "You don't know what British people are like," he says. "If I started smiling more, Brits would say [high Cockney voice], 'Oh, look at 'im, would you. Everything is so rosy for 'im. But you watch. 'E'll get 'is comeuppance.' Brits are like that. Besides, I'm afraid I might lose track of what I'm trying to do. It'd be, 'Sure he's fun, but what has he achieved?' "
That's it, really. There is too much left to achieve for Faldo to let his guard down now. There are too many trophies to hold before the picture hangs straight, before the fireplace is centered. He must win a U.S. Open, that's for sure. He must win a PGA. He wants more majors. He wants more legend. "I'd like people to say, 'Did you see Nick Faldo play golf in his heyday? I did, and he was something.' That's part of greatness."
But he wants more than that. "You know how I would really like to be remembered?" he says, pausing for effect. "I'd like to be remembered as having the perfect swing."
That's golf to Faldo—a bicycle to take apart, a game to be broken down past wins, past majors, past greatness, past everything, down to the very cogs. Perfect to the tiniest screw, that's Faldo. But what good is legend if people can't say they knew you? What good is perfection if it feels cold to the touch? And what good is standing out on the patio on freezing nights, looking hard at the kitchen window, and seeing only the swing, always the swing, never the man?