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1997 NISSAN OPEN / RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB | JIM MURRAY

It Was a Boring Trip --Right to the Bank

March 03, 1997|JIM MURRAY

Well, as the song says, "There'll Always Be An England." Nick Faldo, one of the Queen's Own, taught the colonists a lesson at Riviera on Sunday. Nicholas struck a blow for the Empire, put the Yanks in their place for a change with a three-shot victory in the Nissan Open, one of the premier events on the American tour, and he turned it into a "Tiger Who?" event.

It was a popular win, even with us rebels. Riviera, with its gaudy past, with echoes of Hogan, Snead, Nelson and the titans of the game who have won here, is meant to be won by a man of golfing stature and Sir Nick (well, he's actually a Member of the British Empire, which is in the anteroom of knighthood) fills the bill nicely. You get the feeling the old guard would approve unanimously of this addition to their ranks.

There is a high art in golf and it is in cozying a lead safely into the clubhouse. Not many players have mastered it to the extent Sir Nick has. Raymond Floyd was a past master at it. If Raymond had a two- or three-shot lead going into the back nine of a tough course, it was all over. And if you had to come and get Hogan on the last day, chances are you couldn't.

Nick Faldo doesn't like to be overtaken either. A cerebral golfer, with all the shots and with five American tour victories and 33 worldwide behind him, Nick rarely even looks back. Someone noted he went on "automatic pilot" Sunday and it's as good a description as you're going to get of Nick with a three-shot lead in his quiver.

Nick is like a poker player with two pair or even a full house--or he's like the guy trying not to smile as he says, "I'll play these."

Nick took off Sunday with a one-shot lead and the flower of American golf at his heels.

There was Craig Stadler, who never hit a shot he liked, there was the young Scott McCarron, the dangerous Fred Couples and the elegant Mark O'Meara.

Faldo has a reputation of being a man who never tempts the fates, never walks the precipice. If he were a fighter, he'd be a counter-puncher. In tennis, he'd hug the baseline. He admitted as much in his post-round interview. A man who once won a British Open with 18 consecutive pars, Faldo acknowledged he is known for taking the safe way to the hole, hitting the fat part of the green, not going for the pin, lagging putts and laying up where perhaps an Arnold Palmer would go for the green with a wood. Nick never makes 7.

He is also a master at recognizing a cold round of golf and dealing with it patiently so it doesn't become catastrophic. "They used to say of me that I was mechanical and boring," he acknowledged. "I'm delighted to get back to that."

You can get to love the boring life when it gets you $252,000. If you're Nick Faldo, boredom pays handsomely. A quarter of a million dollars for four day's work hardly qualifies as boring in most people's lexicons.

Faldo so skillfully played his hand Sunday that his one-shot lead had increased to four by the time he made the turn. Actually, he led runner-up Stadler by five at one point and also led Scott Hoch by five at another.

Faldo actually insisted later that he was glad to be paired with Stadler. "It was a good thing to be playing with Craig, because he played really aggressive and I had to play really aggressively too," he said, adding: "I need to be inspired."

Of course, a Faldo definition of playing aggressively would probably not be Palmer's--or Greg Norman's, whom Nick overcame with an 11-shot, fourth-round differential at the Masters last year. Nick's risks would probably translate in poker terms to "I'll see you," never "I'll see you and raise you two."

Still, giving Nick Faldo a lead to start with is like giving a lion an extra tooth or Jesse James an extra gun.

Faldo is too much a perfectionist to play desperation golf. He makes you beat him. You get no help from Her Majesty's golfing emissary. If he was firing at pins Sunday, he was missing them. He was not missing greens, however. He hit only one bad shot all day by his own admission--a tee shot on No. 11. It hit a tree. It left him with a 205-yard carry over the yawning barranca on the hole. The sensible shot seemed a layup with a mid-iron short of the barranca. Faldo took out a five-wood and "carried the short side of the barranca with it." It wasn't exactly reckless daring--even a duffer can occasionally hit a five-wood 205 and Palmer probably would have a driver at the pin--but, with a crisp wedge, Faldo was able to get on the green and make the putt for a birdie.

Nick's great strength on the golf course is keeping the wheels on. He saw his steady, mechanical, methodical play win a Masters last year when he started the final round six shots back--and won the tournament by five.

Norman could use some front-running lessons from Faldo. Nick is like the famous front-running jockey, Johnny Longden, of whom a rival once said, "You can get to him--you can't get by him."

Faldo is the golfing equivalent of that. He lets you take all the desperate chances. His ambition is to bore you to death--or at least to three shots behind. He doesn't care if you yawn all the way around. So long as you stay there.

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