Wednesday 24 May 2017

'I'd love to be playing in this era -- the technology is so good'

Nick Faldo would have made most of advances in modern game, writes Dermot Gilleece from Hawaii

Dermot Gilleece

Entering his seventh year as a TV analyst, Nick Faldo has been here for the last two weeks in paradise reclaimed, doing his thing for the Golf Channel and imagining what it would be like to be trading shots with today's young guns. While grateful for what he has achieved, he retains the great sportsman's conviction that talent is timeless.

"I would love to be competing in this era," said the winner of six Major championships. "My goodness! The technology is frightening, it's so good. It's reckoned that ball and club developments since the early 1990s are allowing players to hit it 50 yards further. We're talking about very different times."

Often viewed as cold, self-obsessed and aloof, Faldo the golf enthusiast projects none of those traits. Instead, there is a boyish eagerness for a game which has totally dominated his life, delivering considerable wealth, celebrity and even a knighthood along the way.

The relaxed nature of life in Hawaii seemed to make him more accessible than normal. During last week's tournament at Kapalua, for instance, he even saw fit to compete, albeit for only one hole, in a charity side-show. The very idea of it lent special significance to reports of Faldo sightings, on the putting green, the practice ground and the course itself, early in the week.

Renowned competitiveness was certainly in evidence as he waited around the ninth tee to join Graeme McDowell in his particular segment of the three-hole knockabout. Predictably early, he headed for the third tee close by and began hitting drivers as a warm-up. About 12 of them were executed with the familiar, easy action designed for accuracy rather than length.

Yet almost despite himself, new technology did its work. "Three-o-eight uphill; how about that," he enthused as a new, white-headed TaylorMade R11 driver despatched the ball on the same line as the others, arrow-straight and comfortably inside a fairway bunker on the right.

When the time came for action on the 521-yard ninth, McDowell couldn't resist a gentle swipe at his former Ryder Cup captain. "Mind that bunker at 450," he cautioned, grinning. But Faldo wasn't in the mood for banter. Preparing for action with a golf club in his hand was never a time for levity. As it happened, he pulled a well-struck effort of 293 yards into light rough on the left.

Talking golf with him is an absorbing experience, especially against the background of a career dominated by the Major championships, a record 11 successive Ryder Cup appearances and the Irish Open, which he won on three successive occasions in 1991, 1992 and 1993. In fact the first prize money he ever won as a pro was for leading the pre-qualifiers at Portmarnock for the 1976 Irish Open, though PGA rules ordained that he wasn't long enough on Tour to collect it.

Recalling those practice drives at Kapalua, he said: "Golf has changed totally. I played with Persimmon and a rubber, balata golf ball and I've really struggled to adapt to the modern equipment. It's a different swing now. Players are so fit, working hard on their biomechanics and that sort of thing. For me, tempo was always the key, whereas now it's about the hit. Their shots are explosive.

"My objective was always to work the ball and I got to a point at one stage where I could shape the ball fractions, like five feet or 10 feet either way. On the range, I would try something different with every shot (as Ben Hogan famously claimed he did)."

Warming to the subject, Faldo continued: "If I was a kid trying to be a serious golfer now, I'd go to live in Carlsbad, California where the top manufacturers are based and whichever brand I was with, I'd be down at the factory every morning. Any thought or feeling can be confirmed for you by computers, good or bad, right or wrong. With instant feedback, by the time you've hit six balls you know exactly where you're going."

Embellishing this image of Faldo the mechanical man, he said: "It would be the same with putting. They have devices now which give you instant feedback on your stroke. So, after an hour's technical stuff every morning, depending on the computer feedback, I'd have things to work on until I was fit to drop. That's me." Small wonder his one-time coach, David Leadbetter, saw Faldo as the perfect pupil.

The 53-year-old, who was always a fine physical specimen, insisted that his generation never achieved a fitness level comparable to the modern player. "I was fit, sure, as in good heart, good lungs and good legs," he acknowledged. "But nowadays, they're working on golf-specific muscles so as to become better and better. More consistent. I would have loved that part as well."

In the midst of all this longing, surely he had found some compensation in the TV tower? "Certainly," he replied. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing. But if I could still perform on a golf course, that's undoubtedly where I'd want to be. It's what I was born to do. But I know I can't. I'm twice as old as these guys and my golfing batteries are run down.

"I did my stuff 20 years ago and it's nice to know that some of the current crop were out there watching. Like Luke Donald was at a few Opens and Ian Poulter at Ryder Cups. I'm very happy with what I did, but you've got to accept things as they are.

"The end of my competitive career was a gradual process. And it hurt. It really hurt. It took five years for me to accept that I couldn't play as I once did. And I couldn't accept mediocrity. Gradually, other things began to dominate my life. I'm now an analyst, a businessman and a course designer. My time on the practice ground is down to five per cent of what it once was. And that's all right."

Yet for all his talk of new technology, I suggested that certain fundamentals hadn't changed. "Oh yeah," said Faldo. "There's still the X-factor incorporating your brain, your heart and your hands. Technology doesn't change those things. It won't help you to stick in there, playing as hard as you can.

"I also believe that you still can't get away with being a one-dimensional player and win Major championships. You've got to be able to shape your shots, unless it's sopping wet. And even then, with the hole locations you're going to face, you've still got to do something with the ball. At any level, the guy who can work and shape the ball is going to be a better golfer.

"McDowell can do it. He likes to shape it with his own little golf swing. Then there's his putting. I remember playing with him, six or seven years ago, before I started the TV stuff. The thing that struck me was how well he putted from 15 feet. My goodness! What he did against Tiger (in the Chevron Challenge) last month was unbelievable."

On being informed that McDowell won 14 times during his last two years as an amateur, Faldo responded: "That's invaluable preparation for a pro career. You learn from losing tournaments. I remember Gerald Micklem (Walker Cup selector) telling me that I'd have to lose six tournaments to learn how to win one. The problem, however, is that if you lose six pro events from winning positions, you've put an anchor around your neck.

"Irish golf is in a very healthy state right now. (Padraig) Harrington with his three Majors: that's pretty special. Rory (McIlroy) had a great win in America last year. With his youth, how far he can hit it and how smooth his swing is, he's got the world at his feet. Superb technique allows him to compete on any golf course. European players should be strong contenders on quite diverse courses for this year's Majors.

"Like Rory, Lee (Westwood) has a chance everywhere, but not having done it, especially in the Open at Turnberry in 2009, will be concerning him more than his many admirers. He knows there's a question he has to answer.

"(Ian) Poulter scared himself at Augusta last year with a couple of bad swings that stayed with him. Still, after a great Ryder Cup, he should be facing this season with plenty of confidence. The Open at Royal St George's could really suit G-Mac because he's got the skill and talent to work the ball around the course. Work out the bounces.

"Paul Casey must also have a chance, especially on long courses like Augusta and Atlanta Athletic Club (PGA Championship). Finally, there's Martin Kaymer whose game is impressively solid throughout. If those six guys get seriously into contention, at least one of them could finish things off."

With that, his eyes lit up as we began reflecting on great Faldo moments at Augusta. "In 1990, I was six-under after 27 or was it nine-under?" he mused. "Then, for the next 45 holes . . . " His voice tailed off.

Though Faldo's golfing future will be determined by analysis rather than action, there will always be a wonderful fund of memories he can dip into at will.

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