Nick Of Time

Nick Faldo overcame a two-shot deficit with only four holes to play to win his third British Open
July 26, 1992

If there are still those who would bestow Ben Hogan's mantle of stoicism upon Nick Faldo, then let them explain Sunday's happenings at Muirfield. By the time the 121st British Open Golf Championship was over, the supposedly phlegmatic Faldo had trembled, quivered and quailed, had shed real tears and had all but undressed in public. His victory speech, delivered before packed grandstands at the 18th green, included a verbal mooning of the press and a croaky rendition of the Frank Sinatra classic My Way—everything but one-arm push-ups.

Nowhere in the record of Hogan is there a similar example of public intoxication—a thin smile and a gracious thank-you being the Hogan response to most good fortune. Of course Hogan, the 1953 British Open champion, never led the tournament by four shots with 18 holes to play only to find himself down by two with four left. And then won.

That happened to Faldo on Sunday, and his near collapse hit him stronger than drink. "I'm absolutely gone, I'm shocked," he said afterward. Which was literally true. Faldo showed all the signs of clinical shock: paleness, giddiness, inappropriate verbal response, rambling speech. It was as if he had somehow survived a great fall, which, in fact, he had.

Actually, you can look at Faldo's victory in Scotland in one of two ways.

•It was one of the great comebacks in major-championship history. Faldo birdied two of the last four holes on the most esteemed course on the Open rota to overcome a stirring challenge by John Cook and become the first British three-time winner of the tournament since Harry Cotton in 1948.

•It was one of the great escapes in major-championship history. Three strokes up at the turn on Sunday, Faldo prevailed only because Cook blew a 2½-foot birdie putt on number 17 and then bogeyed the 18th.

Faldo was possessed of the second view. He spoke of his "imperfection" and of how his Sunday slide might destroy his frame of mind for future competition. "If it had all wound up the wrong way, if I had lost," he said in one of his postvictory soliloquies, "I'd have needed a very large plaster to patch that one up." And countless times for various audiences he repeated, "I thought I'd blown it."

Before Faldo had even started, British bookmaker William Hill had established him as the favorite based on his recent run of nine top-10 finishes in a row (including a playoff victory at the Irish Open and fourth place at the U.S. Open) and his record in majors (two British Open titles, two Masters wins, five other top-5 performances). Early in the week defending champion Ian Baker-Finch had picked "the two Nicks," Faldo and Price, because they were playing well and because "they want it so much." Interesting idea, really, because those who lose major championships often explain away their misfortune by saying, "I wanted it too much." Major titles are like pearls in syrup—ungraspable by the overeager.

Certainly there were many players in Scotland who wanted it badly, only to be left wanting. Fred Couples and Davis Love III, one and two on the PGA Tour money list for several months, missed the cut by five and seven shots, respectively. Love went quietly, but Couples saved his worst for the final hole, making triple bogey from one of Muirfield's famous fairway bunkers. The Garboesque Couples, given a chance to utter a perfectly appropriate "I vant to be alone," said instead, "I have a car waiting for me." Subsequent cars presumably lined up to carry off former British Open champions Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, each of whom also missed the cut.

Among the survivors the most surprised may have been PGA champion John Daly, who sneaked in by a stroke. A novice at links-style golf, Daly tried to overpower Muirfield with the arsenal that had been so effective last August at Crooked Stick: huge drives and cloud-seeding wedges. Daly routinely launched balls safely over fairway bunkers, and on Thursday he drove pin high on the 351-yard second hole, but his short irons drifted like balloons in a gale. "He did not feel comfortable with this style of golf," said Baker-Finch, who played with Daly for two rounds. "His idea of golf is a 7,000-yard TPC course, water on every hole, soft greens and hitting all his second shots past the pin."

Daly, who admits that the weakest part of his game is the three-quarter shot—for that matter, any shot that's less than full-out—accepted the characterization. "I couldn't handle those shots from 100 yards in," he said after shooting a 74 on Thursday. "If the wind blows 40 miles an hour when I tee off tomorrow, I might as well pack it in."

The wind, in fact, held steady at 20 to 25 mph on Friday, and Daly balanced enough homers and pop-ups to shoot a 69 and stick around. However, in similar winds on the weekend he shot 80-75 to finish last among the survivors.

By contrast, the first round was played in baby-breath breezes and saw 56 subpar rounds. Co-leaders Steve Pate and 49-year-old Ray Floyd shot 64s on the par-71 layout. "If this were just an ordinary tournament and not the most important championship in golf, someone would have shot a 62," said Ian Woosnam, who had an opening-round 65.

On Friday, despite the blustery conditions, the course gave up 38 subpar rounds. "You can attack the golf course a little bit because the greens are not real severe to putt on," said PGA Tour veteran Donnie Hammond, who had qualified at Dunbar on Monday and wound up tied for fifth at 279. Indeed, Muirfield's greens were nowhere near as fast as those in last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

The other ameliorating factor throughout the tournament was the rough. To television viewers it looked a foot high, with all those golden-seed stalks bending in the wind. Actually, dry weather had thinned the rough considerably, and many balls that missed the fairway wound up gently perched on cushions of matted grass with only a few wispy blades as interference. On Saturday, Faldo drove into what looked like heavy stuff left of the 6th fairway, 180 yards from the flag. But he was able to lash a six-iron 30 feet past the hole. Old-timers shook their heads, remembering the rough of 1966, when a caddie who was looking for a ball in the long grass put down his bag—and subsequently lost the bag.

Even on the weekend, when the winds were gusting and scores rose (there were only 29 subpar rounds in those two days), Muirfield was not the ruthless punisher of even five years ago, when rain fell incessantly, noses froze and only 73 subpar rounds were shot over the four days. This time the players could concentrate on avoiding the only truly penal hazards left—the famous revetted bunkers. Faldo drove into one of those sod-walled pits from the 1st tee on Sunday, which partially explains why his final-round walk around flat Muirfield seemed, as he put it, "like climbing a bloody mountain." Whether his opening bogey unnerved him is debatable—he went on to make nine straight pars—but it scotched any chance of his making 18 straight pars, as he had on the final day of his first British Open win, at Muirfield in 1987.

"The worst thing is the buildup," Faldo said later, decrying the aura of invincibility that rises around him when he is going well. A 64 on Friday gave him a tournament-record 130 for 36 holes. The next day the International Herald Tribune headlined its Open story thusly: 2 ROUNDS LEFT, BUT THE TITLE SEEMS HIS FOR THE PUTTING OUT. When Faldo shot a 69 on Saturday, stretching his lead to four strokes over Cook and Pate, Hill, the bookmaker, made Faldo the "virtually unbackable" favorite at 1 to 6. Said Cook on Saturday evening, "If there's anyone that doesn't beat himself, it's Nick Faldo." And Pate: "He's probably the least likely to go out and shoot 74."

Cook and Pate themselves represented a couple of shades of unlikely. Pate is best remembered for getting injured in a motorcade accident near Kiawah Island, S.C., last fall, which limited him to a single match of Ryder Cup play. Nicknamed Volcano, Pate is Faldo's antithesis—a spray-hitting birdie-bogey machine with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Asked if he'd spotted his name on the leader board on Saturday, when he was briefly tied with Faldo at minus-12, Pate said no. "If I had," he added, "I would have pulled a camera out and taken a picture of it."

The boyish-looking Cook, with two tournament wins this year and two other top-10 finishes—he has quietly risen to fourth on the PGA money list—posed a more subtle threat. He brought most of the tools needed to play in the wind—bump shots, fairway putts, 150-yard three-irons. "I feel I can hit some different-looking shots," he said. "I'm not one of those one-dimensional Americans."

He proved that to Faldo on Sunday by closing to within a stroke of him with an eagle on the 5th hole. At the turn, though, Cook trailed by four strokes. But as he had in the final round of several recent European Tour events, Faldo suddenly seized up, making bogies on numbers 11 and 13. Moments later Cook rolled in a six-foot putt for birdie on number 15. Meanwhile, Faldo was getting intimate with a fairway bunker on number 14 en route to his fourth bogey of the day. Cook then dropped a 20-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th hole. That left Faldo two down with four holes to go.

Ashen. That pretty much describes Faldo's appearance as he left the 14th green. But his mind still churned: "I said, Somehow you'd better play the best four holes of your life. I guess I did."

Wide with his irons all day, Faldo finally outsmarted the wind at the 15th, hitting a brilliant half-five-iron to within three feet of the cup to set up an easy birdie that left him one stroke off the pace. He scrambled for par from behind the green on the 16th, while Cook, on the par-5 17th, narrowly missed a 30-foot eagle putt that would most likely have settled Faldo's hash. Then the reprieve: Cook's missed neargimme birdie attempt. Had he made the putt, he would have had a two-shot lead and a burst of confidence going into the final hole. Instead, Cook was left to ponder what should have been. "At least I hit the hole," he said.

Cook's 18th and Faldo's 17th produced the final swing. With the mercurial Pate having fallen to fourth place behind late-surging Jose-Maria Olazabal, Cook drove for glory and split the fairway. However, indecision on his second shot cost him dearly. After debating whether to hit a two-iron or a three-iron, Cook took a tentative swipe with the two-iron. The most critical shot of his life ended up under a police barricade, right of the green. He made a bogey 5, which opened the way for Faldo, who had hit his second shot to the 17th green with a courageous four-iron. Faldo left his 20-foot eagle putt short by inches—"right in the jaws," he would recall with disgust—but the subsequent birdie returned the lead to him by a stroke.

That left only number 18 standing between Faldo and victory, and he responded with four shots that could have fit on a sidewalk running from tee to cup. His three-iron second shot nearly hit the pin before stopping 25 feet from the hole just off the back edge of the green. The bleacher Brits roared their approval, and constables stretched a hawser across the fairway to ward off the traditional spectator stampede. Faldo, now an emotional wreck, could manage only a few weak waves on his march up the fairway. "I mean, I still had a bit of work to do, didn't I?" he said later.

His putt from the fringe looked muffed, laboring a few turns before gliding down to within a foot of the pin with Faldo following, fanning it along. Then, standing over the one-footer, he shook. Trembled. Wobbled. "I don't think I could have made a three-footer," he said. Once the putt was safely down, he bent over, grimacing as if in pain, the tears coming, before raising his arms in triumph. Fifteen minutes later his voice continued to crack, although a smile broke through as well, just as the sun had done from time to time during the round.

Some in the gallery were offended, and others were amused, by Faldo's trophy speech, particularly his remarks about the press: "I have to thank the press from the bottom of my, well, from my bottom, maybe." Faldo rages at the press because its musings about his game are so much like the gnarly voices of doubt he hears in his own head. He knows how close he comes to "the knife's edge"—his words—when he plays.

In his performance at Muirfield, Faldo again displayed the steely resolve that has led many to liken him to Hogan. But when Faldo was asked why he had cried after tapping in for the victory, there was self-rebuke in his reply. "I'm just an emotional little old petal," he said.

Few would agree, but the unexpected crack in Faldo's facade at Muirfield invites a reappraisal of the man who is unquestionably the premier British golfer of his generation and the best player in the world today.

PHOTOSTEPHEN MUNDAY/ALLSPORT PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINCook had rough going on Sunday after he missed the 18th green with his second shot. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINAn unplayable lie on 9 was one reason Pate—a.k.a. Volcano—blew to a 73 on Sunday. PHOTOSTEPHEN MUNDAY/ALLSPORTDaly tried to overpower Muirfield from the tee, and he paid the price. PHOTOHOWARD BOYLAN/ALLSPORTBy the time Faldo teed off on number 13, he was on his way to blowing a four-shot lead. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINAfter a hairy finish, an emotional Faldo gave a speech that amused some and offended others.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)