The last English golfer to win the Open is in great form. Not on the course, because it’s a bit slogged these days, but he swings free and easy with his thoughts and memories and a few grips.
Rory will move from McIlroy’s wedge difficulty to Sergio Garcia’s attitude problems, and over time to a tiger’s stance and the stench of a great white. But first we go to the bear.
‘A real bear,’ says Sir Nick Faldo. ‘And the rattlesnake. It’s very snake-y. But I will tell you about the bear.’
He sits comfortably in the belfry, a place that harkens back to when this knight was king. Today, as a semi-retired 65-year-old, life is slower, less chaotic, and so his mind is at home, which for the past year has been a 125-acre farm in the wilds of Montana. In that farm we will find bears.
‘I can’t tell you how much I love it, so I’ll make a long story short,’ says Faldo, but then again, he’s never been much of a guy for cuts. ‘My wife, Lindsay, and I decided to do it during Covid. We were going to start building in Florida, but that wasn’t enough for us. All you have to do is turn left or right on the beach, it’s stinking hot, lots of traffic, not enough space for dogs.
Sir Nick Faldo with wife Lindsay is enjoying the good life at their new ranch in Montana
‘The idea of a farm always appeals. When I decided to step away from TV last year, it just felt right — enjoy life, you know? We go to Montana regularly because I designed a course there and the seed was in my head.
Anyway, I’m friends with Huey Lewis (singer-songwriter) and one day I’m there and he asks if I want to play golf with Kevin Costner, which is cool because I’m seeing him in Yellowstone. We got there, took a look, and that was it. We sold everything and left.
‘So here’s the bear thing. It’s funny, because it was the day before Lindsay’s birthday and I went to buy her a cute wooden bear. I’m leaving the house so I can go fishing for a few hours and as I pull in he’s on the phone telling me not to get eaten by a bear.
‘I laugh, but then I see it. I’m on the other side of the fence and it’s a mama bear. You don’t mess with the mother bear.’
Lindsay Faldo, who has come to join us, nods. ‘We’re not at the top of the food chain there,’ she says. ‘I’d rather be near the top.’ Her husband resumed: ‘Then you have other neighbors – elk, wolves, coyotes. There are also rattlesnakes in the canyons and a mountain lion near a friend’s place. Moose is what you are on the lookout for.
‘So you have to look over your shoulder a bit, but it’s just great. You can see 40 miles up the hill on a good day and you might have 5,000 people on that stretch, compared to five million around London. I love it. But yeah, it’s a different life to play golf.’
With that, Faldo pauses for breath — he’s been going one answer for about eight minutes. Short cuts were hardly his thing. Never bothered to be part of the crowd.
The 65-year-old loves fishing, especially now that he has quit his TV job in the States
One of British sport’s most reliable killers has an uneasy relationship with the idea of killing time. ‘It’s a bit uncomfortable to wake up and do nothing,’ he says. ‘It’s not me, but I’m slowly getting used to it.’
His departure from CBS last August, after 18 years as their chief analyst, was taken as a retirement, but he’s still hanging around. He’s been designing courses, popping up for the occasional television gig — he opens for Sky next week — and running the Faldo Series for aspiring golfers for three decades.
‘I’m not done yet,’ he says, and it’s certainly true that he still has his edge – the views that made him a compelling broadcaster haven’t moved into the wilderness of America. With that, we go to his old sparring partner Greg Norman.
Two titans of the 1980s and 1990s, they will forever be locked together in history. Norman had 331 weeks at world number one, Faldo 91. Faldo won six majors, Norman two. When Norman blew a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters, it was Faldo who passed him.
Their names are intertwined and Faldo is taking in last year’s frenzy, as we talk about LIV and the messy landscape of mergers and reunions. All of which lead to the fire starter soon being blown up by his own dynamite.
Faldo has not won an English Open since he claimed his third Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1992.
‘Greg didn’t help,’ says Faldo. ‘I think it would have been very different without him.
‘It didn’t help golf at all that nobody wanted to go to the table and talk to him. In the pro world or the amateur world, no one wants to have meetings.
So it is not good for playing. He really caused many obstacles. Who knows if he will be able to move past everyone now?’
There is little sympathy, just as there is no affection for LIV, with the future of the isolated tour a mystery after their Saudi paymasters joined the US and European circuits.
‘You can’t go there if you still feel competitive,’ says Faldo. ‘I understand why Lee (Westwood) and (Ian) Poulter are there because they think they can’t win. I’m guessing, but I don’t know how enjoyable it actually is or if the players are saying to their mates, “If I play for two years, I’ll make 10 times what I’m going to make on tour”.
‘I have no problem with them doing anything. They were offered boatloads of money. I don’t like the way they promote the way they think they’re changing the game. You go and hit a ball around a field — what’s different? The first T in the taxi? Party thing?
‘Historical change? Well, no, because you don’t get that much coverage on TV, there’s no atmosphere.’
Faldo doesn’t really sugar coat. These are not his style. As a player, he conducted himself with the aura of a man who valued holing putts and saw nothing in relationships among professionals.
He was a restless, withdrawn, obsessive golfer, who was highly respected among his peers but not well-liked. Or to paraphrase Faldo’s opposite number Paul Azinger as 2008 US Ryder Cup captain, he might be ‘a prick’.
Those who knew him well said he was more of a sensitive soul than he was, and yet he spent so long expressing his indifference to people’s opinions.
These days, she’s more friendly and relaxed than the warmer version we saw in the studio. He chats for about an hour and loves to hold court.
He enjoys noting that no English Open has been won since claiming his third Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1992 because ‘it puts my name in the conversation’. This time, at Hoylake, he wants to give Tommy Fleetwood a run, but the inevitable fascination lies in that mystery from across the Irish sea, from Rory McIlroy.
The six-time major champion enjoyed the music of Mel Sport at the Belfry
It once seemed inevitable that McIlroy would pass Faldo’s European record of six majors, but in 2014 nine years have passed since his fourth. Incidentally, McIlroy left Hoylake with Claret Jug that summer.
‘I have a feeling he could have a great week,’ Faldo said. ‘He’ll want to be number five. All I watch through my TV is his wedge play – he must be disappointed some days.
‘He runs it better than anyone, probably in history. Then you hit a wedge maybe 50ft and three putt. This is a killer for a professional.
‘You do it once a day, it might finish you off, but he might do it twice. If he gets a bad shot at 20 feet instead of 50, it makes a huge difference.
Won most majors
Jack Nicklaus (USA), 18
Tiger Woods (US), 15
Walter Hagen (USA), 11
Ben Hogan (USA), Gary Player (South Africa), 9
Tom Watson (USA) 8
Harry Verdon (Jersey), Bobby Jones (USA), Gene Sarazen (USA), Sam Snead (USA), Arnold Palmer (USA), 7
Nick Faldo (England), Lee Trevino (USA), Phil Mickelson (USA), 6
‘I’ve always said my goal was to get really good from the eight iron and down. You don’t have to do much if you can land your small irons wherever you want. He’s 34 – the next five years give him a chance to win 20 majors. I have a sneaky feeling he’ll be five.’
Like many in the game, Faldo marveled at the burden McIlroy placed on his political contributions during a year of LIV chaos.
‘When you start talking about the same thing every day, it drives you up the wall,’ says Faldo. ‘Sometimes you just want to go and focus on golf, do your thing. For me, there was nothing better than having a little peace. I’d go down and chip a bag of balls and it would arrive at 5pm and no one would know you were there. It’s hard for these guys to stay away from their phones now.’
Discussions of different eras lead the conversation to the age-old question of who ranks where, or more simply — Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods?
‘I want to go with Jack because of the 18 majors,’ Faldo said. ‘Tiger was incredible. When he wins four in a row, wow. But Tiger’s advantage is that we’ve seen every shot he’s taken. Jack Hits has an awful lot of incredible shots that didn’t make TV.
I’d give Jack the edge in ’18. Honestly, he was the person who inspired me to become a golfer.’
Faldo shakes his head — his own game isn’t what he wants. ‘I found a beautiful range with mountains in the background and it’s just the three of us there most of the time,’ he says. ‘Some days the ball goes where I want it but then I go on the course and I’m five over seven. I am a frustrated golfer in my 60s. I was good at this.’
It is perhaps through McIlroy’s struggle to get past the winning streak in the majors that modern fans can better appreciate Faldo’s climb to the mountain.
He doesn’t say much about regrets — he had 10 top-10 finishes at the Open, not counting his three wins. But if there is any disappointment, it concerns another event on the horizon, as we find ourselves in the year of the Ryder Cup.
Faldo played in 11 and is the second highest point scorer in history. But 2008, his year of captaincy, still looks like him.
That trip to Valhalla was a bit of a disaster, not just for the 16.5-11.5 hammering, but for the nature of the week. Poulter elaborated that ‘a lot of players were unhappy about a lot of things’, but criticism is a two-way street.
‘It’s a tough one because there’s no thanks when you lose,’ says Faldo. ‘You’re out the door on Monday and there should be a debrief. But people take the attitude that because you lost, you were useless.
‘I have no regrets. As a captain you can’t do anything when the boys are playing. My backbone was Padraig (Harrington), Westwood and Garcia and they didn’t perform that week. Padraig was knackered, Lee had blisters on his feet and Sergio couldn’t care less. So it was difficult.’
Faldo marvels at Rory McIlroy’s burden amid a year of LIV chaos
It was a theme of the week that Faldo’s relationship with the press was less than ideal — for his career.
‘The roots started in my first few weeks on tour,’ he says. ‘What seemed to me was what the media wanted, they wanted Faldo to lose. They wanted to abuse me. I’ll stop there.’
And so he did. This year, when Europe faces the United States in Rome, he has a core list of Jon Rahm, McIlroy, Victor Hovland, Matt Fitzpatrick, Fleetwood, Tyrell Hatton, Justin Rose and Shane Lowry and is feeling bullish. How Luke Donald fills the other four will be key, but Faldo said: ‘I’ll stand up to whatever America throws at them. No BS, I love that team. They need a rookie to have a hot week.’
It’s been 46 years since Faldo was that rookie, leading the 20-year-old by three points. A lot has changed about him since then, but a lot has remained the same.
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