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Jim Murray

If England Could Swing Like Faldo

January 17, 1988|Jim Murray

CARLSBAD — Ordinarily, the British Open, the golf tournament, is about as British as George Washington or the Boston Tea Party.

It's usually won by Tom Watson, five victories; by the Aussie, Peter Thomson, also five; by the Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, or a South African, Gary Player or Bobby Locke, or by Jack Nicklaus or Bobby Jones.

It's never won by guys who sound like Ronald Colman or who say of people who make movies that they are projuicers, that people who lose weight are said to rejuice and the underground trains in London are the chubes.

It's more often won by guys who refer to conflagrations as fars and film personalities as movie stores and that the second person singular of the pronoun is yawl and blond means unable to see.

Rudyard Kipling would be profoundly disappointed by the British Open. It's hardly been Britain's finest hour. The Brits make fine actors and brave soldiers but they have trouble putting.

They invent sports, then turn them over to the rest of the world. Golf was born in the British Isles but, in the decades between 1952 and 1984, their Open was won by a Brit exactly once--and that was widely considered to be a fluke.

Their heavyweights cut easily, and it's been eons since they won Wimbledon, but the Brits muddle through. There'll always be an England and there'll always be a British Open--no matter how many times it's won by refugees from Spanish bullrings or the sons of Portuguese sailors.

It's been a rough couple of hundred years for the Empire. First, the colonies, then India, now the Open. There may be some corner of a foreign field that is forever England but it ain't a fairway.

Since they were the ones who invented the game in the first place, the effect was a little like the Italians losing an opera audition or the Germans a parade.

The Crown badly needed a hero.

Nick Faldo hardly looked the part as he teed it up in the 115th British Open at Muirfield last year. This was no Sir Walter Raleigh or another Nelson or Duke of Wellington that Her Majesty was sending into the fray. Another Cornwallis was more like it.

Nick had won a couple of Car Care Plan Internationals, the odd Paco Rabanne French Open and a few Nassaus with the guys back at the home club. But Arnold Palmer, he was not. In fact, his nickname on the sports pages of Fleet Street was Nick Foldo. He was the golfing equivalent of the battle of Bunker Hill.

The trouble was, his game was not aggressive. He was no Robin Hood or Sir Galahad. It was no part for Errol Flynn. He tended to defend himself from the golf course rather than vice versa. He played as if his next shot might be out of the Firth of Forth. Seve Ballesteros won British Opens out of parking lots. Nick Faldo finished fifth out of fairways.

Still, unlike Gen. Burgoyne, he was one of the few Brits able to win in America. Nick routed the colonials in the 1984 Sea Pines Heritage and became the first invader from the U.K. to score a victory here since Tony Jacklin 12 years earlier.

The British aren't supposed to excel on tour in anything in America except Gilbert and Sullivan. So, the Yanks were at least impressed.

Faldo is, for an Englishman, an impressive specimen. He rises 6 feet 3 1/2 inches and weighs 14 stone, or 196 pounds, and has wrists like ingots and a long strong back. But, he usually plays the game of a guy just trying to stay in the hand or win the pot on short money. Faldo just pops the ball out there in play and then tries to figure the short way to the hole--the short sure way.

It's not very exciting but at Muirfield last year, it was inspired strategy--on the order of Braddock's men ducking behind rocks. Faldo gave the course a moving target. Lots of guys par the final holes to win a golf tournament--but not 18 of them. Faldo tried not to let the course know he was on it till he could lag two putts to win on the 72nd hole.

Since he was only the second golfer from the Empire to win the championship in 40 years--the Scot, Sandy Lyle, won in 1985--it was the cheeriest news since Hitler turned east.

But, if Nick Faldo thought he was going to be measured for a crypt in Westminster Abbey or made a knight of the realm, he was to fall short. Her Majesty made him an M.B.E.--Member, British Empire--but no one thought he had avenged Yorktown or run the Union Jack back above the Khyber Pass.

Still, it was a victory for Queen and country. Brittania ruled these waves.

What was startling about Nick Faldo down here at the MONY Tournament of Champions was that he suddenly began to behave more like a guy leading a charge than a proper English squire. It was as surprising as if the Queen Mother had started to dance on table tops or a fistfight had broken out in the House Of Lords.

Nick Faldo had started out with his usual furled-umbrella, bowler-hat approach. He treated the course as if it were mined, reeled off his usual quotient of pars--19 in 23 holes.

Then, Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. Faldo flew at the course's throat. At one point, he reeled off seven--count 'em--birdies in a row, only one short of the tour record.

Faldo is not supposed to make one birdie in a row. "I have ruined my image," he said slyly, as he came in from his round.

Does that mean Faldo comes out now like Dempsey after his man on the ropes? Does Faldo the Faint become Faldo the Ferocious? Are his rounds which were once models of monotony now to become dock fights? Will he go from boxer to slugger?

It's not likely. Faldo does not try to make twos on holes where you could end up with sevens if it doesn't work. His game plan is, if the Yankees doodle, he's dandy. If the Spaniards go after the course as if it's a bad bull, he'll turn back their armada.

If par can save the Queen, the sun won't set on this that is left of the British Empire.

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