Although Nick Faldo's aim in life is to collect what he calls
"the little cups," he doesn't think small. When he decided two
years ago to move to the U.S. and play the PGA Tour full time,
his goal was to transform himself from the most significant
golfer of the last decade to an alltime great. Already owning
little cups from five major championships, Faldo believed the
better weather, practice facilities, courses and competition
here would contribute to the most productive years of his career.
It didn't quite work out that way. Faldo's brilliant Masters
comeback last April at the expense of Greg Norman will go down
as one of the most dramatic ever, but it didn't make up for what
was otherwise an erratic two seasons. In 1995 Faldo put together
his worst record in the majors in 10 years, with a tie for 24th
at Augusta his best finish. And except for that third green
jacket, '96 was also a disappointment. The last time Faldo was
on our radar screen was at the British Open at Royal Lytham,
where in an eerie parallel to Augusta he started the final round
six strokes behind and paired with the leader, Tom Lehman.
Although Lehman was far from sharp, a surprisingly jumpy putter
did in Faldo, whose reputation as a closer in the majors was
diminished when he finished fourth. Faldo wasn't scaring anyone
in Tour events, either. In two years he won once, at Doral in
'95, giving him, along with his victory at Hilton Head in 1984,
only two titles in 139 regular Tour starts since 1979. With
Faldo turning 40 this year, his American experiment was
bordering on failure.
But that perspective changed last week at the Nissan Open at
classic Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where Faldo turned
in the kind of vintage performance that he had been working for.
In a shimmering Southern California setting, the Englishman
carefully constructed a sequence of 66-70-68-68 for a
12-under-par 272 to defeat Craig Stadler by three strokes.
The elegant 6'3" Faldo fits in wonderfully at Riviera. The
sprawling Spanish-style clubhouse, where Hollywood rakes like
Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. once hung out, provides a
perfect backdrop. Faldo's also stimulated by the rolling
fairways, artful bunkering, tricky winds and treacherous greens
of a course whose nickname--Hogan's Alley--evokes his idol. In
such a big-time atmosphere Faldo once again became a big-time
player. If more Tour events were held at masterpieces like
Riviera, Faldo probably would have more than two victories. "No,
it's not just another one," he said after his 39th win
worldwide. "This tournament has history and atmosphere. This is
the sort of golf course I'm meant to win on."
Clearly inspired, Faldo played "as solidly as I ever have." His
is a different brand of golf from the pyrotechnics of Tiger
Woods, who finished 20th, or Greg Norman, who lost a playoff in
Dubai last week. Faldo is neither overpowering nor spectacular
and rarely shoots the 64s and 65s that are needed to win on
run-of-the-mill Tour courses. He thrives when par is a good
score and subtlety, artistry, distance control and grit are more
important than power. "I played exactly like I wanted to play
Riviera," said Faldo, who had only four bogeys and one double
over the 72 holes. "They used to write that I was mechanical and
boring. I'm delighted to say I'm getting close to that again."
On a course with deep kikuyu-grass rough and small greens,
mistakes were inevitable, and Faldo wasn't flawless. He hit only
46 of the 72 greens in regulation, but he missed in the right
places, leaving himself simple chips that he usually placed
within gimme range. Faldo made it look so easy that it begged
the question: Why hasn't he won more often in the U.S.?
The answer: Over the last two years his troubles off the course
have been far more difficult to recover from than an errant
approach. They began when Faldo's 11-year marriage to his second
wife, Gill, the mother of his three children, foundered at about
the time he decided to play a full schedule in the U.S. By the
end of the 1995 season, in which Faldo's one-up victory over
Curtis Strange in the Ryder Cup was the highlight, the couple
had separated. By early 1996 Faldo was dating Brenna Cepelak, a
21-year-old Arizona student who dropped out of school to travel
with him. A divorce settlement that reportedly paid Gill $12
million was finally reached last fall. Gill bought a
four-bedroom house in Orlando near Faldo's waterfront home at
Lake Nona, which will allow Faldo to easily visit his children,
Natalie, 10, Matthew, 7, and Georgia, 3. And Faldo purchased a
house near his former family home in Wentworth, England, where
his ex-wife and children live most of the time. Faldo believes
his uneven play since moving to the U.S. is related to "my
separation and my private life off the golf course. I've been
renting houses and buying homes, getting my life sorted out.
They were jobs that had to be done. It wasn't even like golf
came second. Now those jobs are being taken care of, and life is
going good. Now golf is very much what makes everything else
happen in my life."
To all appearances, Faldo has settled into a happy life with
Cepelak, who's in the gallery for all of his rounds and is
frequently present at his practice sessions. In Los Angeles she
and Faldo spent some time away from the course, shopping on
Rodeo Drive and sampling restaurants in Santa Monica. Although
friendly by nature, Cepelak, who was stalked by the British
press at the outset of her relationship with Faldo, stiffened
when approached by a reporter at Riviera. "I don't want to
answer questions, thanks," she said politely.
"I think Brenna is a terrific person and very good for Nick,"
says Peter Jacobsen, who has known Faldo since the early '80s.
"He seems happier, looser, more like he was when I first met
him. He's having fun, and it's coming through."
Faldo agrees. "You've got to be happy off the golf course to be
happy on the golf course," he says. "It helps tremendously."
Unburdened, Faldo has been able to better implement the minute
improvements he and swing coach David Leadbetter are constantly
incorporating into his game. Since December, "when everyone else
was getting fat," says Faldo, he has focused on his putting,
which suffered in recent years because of his emphasis on ball
striking. "Nick had become a streaky putter," says Leadbetter.
"He was missing a lot of putts in the eight-to-20-foot range
that you hole when you're winning tournaments. Nick's full swing
has great rhythm, but he tends to lose rhythm in his putting."
Says Faldo, who averaged a superb 26 putts a round at Riviera,
"My new approach is to get up to the ball, stop messing about
and hit it."
Also in December, Faldo embarked on a change in his grip on full
shots, turning his left hand clockwise the width of one knuckle.
"It's a more powerful position," says Leadbetter, who estimates
that Faldo can hit the ball an additional 10 to 15 yards when he
needs to. "We're trying to get a little more snap into his
swing, a bit more pop to his shots. Nick's swing is kind of like
a metronome, very calm. A little bit more speed, a little bit
more leverage, will help."
Leadbetter admits that the change was, in part, influenced by
Tiger Woods. "We've based Nick's whole game around control, and
it's the biggest reason he's won six majors," Leadbetter says.
"But you look at the way Tiger is able to crash the par-5s and
it's obvious that length is an asset. No question Tiger has
spurred people on. There's a new kid on the block, and we've got
to put in that little bit extra."
Faldo says the grip change has improved the consistency of his
backswing more than it has increased his distance. He's also
more reserved about the effect of Woods. "It's very difficult to
tell yet if he's improving the standard of golf," Faldo says.
"He has gotten the attention of us golden oldies. We have to
Faldo did that at Riviera, along with several other veterans who
seemed at home on the 70-year-old course. Scott Hoch, Don
Pooley, Stadler, Payne Stewart and Tom Watson--all 40 or
older--led at some point during the first 54 holes. Faldo took
the lead for good with a 68 last Saturday. After the round he
headed for the practice range, where, with caddie Fanny Sunneson
and Cepelak close by, he hit dozens of pitch shots as twilight
That was the shot that made the difference on Sunday. Faldo came
out strong with birdies at the 1st and 5th, and made the turn in
33, two ahead of Hoch and Stadler. Then on Riviera's 310-yard
10th, the famous short par-4, Faldo laid up with an iron and hit
an 87-yard pitch to within five feet of the hole. While Stadler,
also playing in the last group, three-putted for bogey, Faldo
sank his putt to gain a four-shot advantage. On the par-5 11th
he hit the same wedge, only from 108 yards, to within a foot and
stretched his lead to five. "That was the killer," said Stadler.
Afterward Faldo endorsed himself for selection to the European
Ryder Cup team, aware that he probably won't qualify on points.
"Let's put it this way," he said. "If I was captain and Seve had
just won the L.A. Open, he'd be on my team. That's my message to
It was further proof that Faldo's passion for the game remains
as intense as ever. One more little cup will give him seven
majors, a number exceeded by only five men--Jack Nicklaus (18),
Walter Hagen (11), Ben Hogan and Gary Player (9), and Watson
(8). "I've never gotten bored or fed up with the game," says
Faldo. "And I feel I've learned so much, especially over the
last five years, that I want to keep playing. I have such a
great knowledge of the game, and now's the time to use it."
Faldo's American Plan might work out after all.
WEST COAST REPORT CARD
Now that the Tour's eight-stop West Coast swing has ended,
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has decided to grade the performances of
select members of the class of '97.
A+ Top honors go to Mark O'Meara, winner of two titles,
$741,785, and enough Ryder Cup points to ensure him a spot on
A- Steve Jones and Paul Stankowski, surprise winners last year,
proved they're for real with a victory each.
B+ Two foreign-exchange players, Jesper Parnevik and Nick
Faldo, are among the top 10 on the money list, the latter thanks
to Sunday's win in Los Angeles.
B Don Pooley, 169th in earnings last season, is currently 16th
and in line for the Comeback Player of the Year award.
C Steve Stricker, who emerged from the sticks to win twice and
earn more than $1 million in '96, is back on the farm with only
$30,297 in six starts.
D Mark Brooks, Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson seemed
certain to make the Ryder Cup team based on their play in '96,
but collectively they have only two top-10 finishes in '97. And
Corey Pavin, 19th on the Cup list when the gun went off, has
earned only 20 points and has slipped to 26th.
F Ben Crenshaw has played in four tournaments and hasn't won a
EXTRA CREDIT: Tiger Woods had the most electrifying swings of
the swing, a six-iron to within six inches at La Costa's par-3
17th to beat Tom Lehman in their playoff at the Mercedes
Championships, a 267-yard three-wood second that reached the
unreachable 18th green at Pebble Beach, and a nine-iron for the
most-watched hole in one in history, at the 162-yard 16th at the
TPC at Scottsdale in the Phoenix Open.