Friday 28 November 2014

Paul Kimmage: Lure of another dance keeps past champions on their toes

Former victories count for nothing when you're still in the chase

Paul Kimmage

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

Nick Faldo: 'He's locked away in his own little world; still torturing himself over the bad swings and the putts that wouldn't drop'
Nick Faldo: 'He's locked away in his own little world; still torturing himself over the bad swings and the putts that wouldn't drop'

Five years ago, on the eve of the 2009 British Open Championship, Nick Faldo checked into a room at the Turnberry Hotel. The whiff of fresh paint told him the room had just been refurbished and his first act was to examine whether the painter and carpet layer had done a good job. Were there brush lines on the wall? Were there teethmarks on the carpet?

It was not, he confessed, normal behaviour. "I have always had an hilarious eye for detail," he laughed.

Turnberry was his 33rd appearance at the Open, and his first as a knight of the realm, and his only ambition for the week was to enjoy himself. His son, Matthew, was caddying for him. The goal was to bond and have fun. "I've a better attitude now," he announced. "What will be, will be."

Four days later, at the end of his second round, he marched towards the scorer's hut clicking his fingers and mumbling in frustration. He signed his card and strode directly to the clubhouse ignoring his son and a friend who were tending his golf bag.

"Does he always walk away from people?" a photographer inquired.

"He doesn't see them," I replied. "He's locked away in his own little world; still torturing himself over the bad swings and the putts that wouldn't drop."

"But that's his son on the bag?'

"Yeah."

"And he walked ahead of him on the 18th!"

"Yes, he did."

"I was waiting to take the shot. I was sure they were going to walk side by side."

"And I'm sure that was the plan."

"So what happened?"

"He's Nick Faldo," I replied.

The obsession is what made him.

The month is October, 2013. I'm sitting with Pádraig Harrington in the kitchen of his home in south Dublin with a replica of 'the precious' in my hands. The Claret Jug is, without question, the loveliest trophy in sport but when you take it in your hands it's the engraving that bewitches. Fred Daly 1947 at Hoylake, Arnold Palmer 1961 at Royal Birkdale, Jack Nicklaus 1970 at St Andrews, Gary Player 1974 at Royal Lytham, Tom Watson 1977 at Turnberry, Severiano Ballesteros 1979 at Royal Lytham, Nick Faldo 1987 at Muirfield, Tiger Woods 2000 at St Andrews, Ernie Els 2002 at Muirfield, Pádraig Harrington 2007 at Carnoustie.

Lift the Claret Jug, and it echoes in eternity. But for Harrington, still struggling to find his game, that is clearly not enough.

"There's a massive burden when you win a Major championship," he says. "There's a number of one-time Major winners, who were good pros enjoying the mystery of trying to get better and they won a Major and it (the pressure of trying to repeat) turned them into miserable pros. I won three, but unless I win another one I'm never going to be as good as I was in 2008 in some people's eyes. And it's tough dealing with that."

"But you'd have ripped my hand off if I'd offered you that 10 years ago," I suggest.

"Of course I would, but that's not how it works. Paul Lawrie has won one Major; Monty (Colin Montgomerie) has won no Majors. Paul Lawrie has won a half-a-dozen events and spent most of his career, like most other golfers, feeling miserable on Sunday nights. Monty has won a stack of tournaments and - more than any other Tour player - felt good about himself on Sunday nights. But those wins won't bring him the happiness that Paul will get from his Major when he retires. When I finish, it will be much more about what I did in the past and those three Majors will bring me immense joy."

It's Tuesday afternoon at the Open in Hoylake. Harrington has just walked off the 13th green when Faldo and Ernie Els arrive on the tee. It's a sunny and almost windless day on the links and the 10-time Major winners (six for Faldo, four for Els) have drawn a large gallery.

Matthew Faldo is caddying for his father and a practice round that started with jollity and laughs has gradually become more serious. It's the brush strokes and the teethmarks. Faldo can see them in every swing and has started to mutter and rub his fingers as he tries to iron them out.

Colin Byrne is caddying for Els. On Thursday, in his column for The Irish Times, he described his day with Faldo and how the round evolved. "He (Faldo) recalled his victories at Muirfield and St Andrews briefly but then got down to the business of preparation for this year's event.

"It was obvious he felt he had found something that could help him genuinely compete way past the time any reasonable older ambassador for the game should have any right to contemplate. We can blame Tom Watson in Turnberry five years ago, aged 59 and defying the odds by finishing second, for giving past champions like Faldo notions.

"Such is their mentality: there is no point in showing up unless you think you can compete. He was grinding away last Tuesday on the most perfect day you could imagine, every practice shot counting as he tried to figure out his strategy."

As Faldo was finishing his round, Graeme McDowell was striding confidently towards the media centre for his pre-tournament press conference. There was a question about his form, a question about Rory McIlroy and a question about what it would mean to him to add a 'British' to his US Open title.

"I'd love a Claret Jug," he replied. "That and the Green Jacket are probably neck and neck."

"But was the Open the most special?" his inquisitor pressed.

"Yeah, I think the Open Championship is a special one. There's no doubt," he concurred. "It maintains that kind of pride, tradition and history and (as a trophy) the Claret Jug is a bit special. I'd give my left arm for the Claret Jug."

Then he paused and seemed to reflect on the absurdity of what he'd said.

Your left arm. Graeme?

Yeah.

Really?

Yeah.

That means you wouldn't be able to play any more?

But the boy wasn't for turning.

"I would, actually," he said. "That would be the end of my career, but it would be a nice way to go."

Three days later, at 4.30 on Friday afternoon as McDowell battled to stay in touch with the lead, he would not have noticed the group of former Major winners heading for the exit and tied for 108th:

+5 Justin Leonard

+5 Ben Curtis

+5 Pádraig Harrington

+5 Sir Nick Faldo

+5 Todd Hamilton

And I'm not sure if he follows Faldo on Twitter or read his post-round tweet. But he might have been speaking for all of them: "Thanks to all my fans' support this week (at the) Open, long tough haul trying to play this game properly! See you at St Andrews, last dance!!"

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