Why are we surprised that within Nick Faldo lurks the emotional equivalent of a bungee jumper? This is a man, after all, whose history is filled with startling leaps, so why should his approach to affairs of the heart be any different? Still, Faldo's latest escapades have been most amazing. Antic adventures. Giggly episodes. Romantic dinners. Sightseeing trips. Above all, the tabloid divorce and the American undergraduate.
If there was any doubt that Faldo, one of the more single-minded champions in golf annals, is once again embarking on a course of radical change, it was removed by the sight of him cheerfully steering a golf cart down a path at the Doral-Ryder Open last week. At his side was 21-year-old Brenna Cepelak, the young woman with whom Faldo has endured, in his words, "tabloid hell." The simple and rather sweet fact of the matter was that they were going fishing. Having finished practice for the day, Faldo puttered into the Miami sunset with Cepelak, bound for a back-links lake known for its bass. The idyllic scene seemed to confirm that he is indeed intent on becoming a new man.
In the last four months Faldo, 38, has ended his marriage to Gill, his wife of 10 years, and begun openly romancing Cepelak, a former University of Arizona golfer who has dropped out of school and put her collegiate career on hold. Faldo now faces an acrimonious divorce proceeding that promises to cost him millions. Gill has hired the same legal firm that represents Diana, the Princess of Wales, and reportedly wants a significantly larger share of Faldo's estimated $60 million in earnings than the $12 million he is said to be offering.
Through it all Faldo, his family and Cepelak have been ravened by the Fleet Street gutter press. He claims reporters have sorted through his garbage, monitored his phone calls and harassed his children, Natalie, 9, Matthew, 6, and Georgia, 2. But Faldo is clearly determined to start his life over again, no matter the consequences. "I knew it was going to screw me up for a while, and it did," he says. "I was prepared for it. And now we all have to carry on."
Faldo is doing more than just carrying on. He is playing his best golf of the last two years, which is how long it has been since he was the top-ranked player in the world. His performance so far in 1996—his stroke average is 69.94—suggests that he might be preparing to add to the five majors he won between 1987 and 1992. "He's got a bounce in his step and a sparkle," says his coach, David Leadbetter. "He is happier and more content than I've seen him in a long time, and from a golfing standpoint he's in a better frame of mind than he has been in years. His golf is a product of his happiness."
Faldo has yet to shoot a round over par this season. He was second to Mark O'Meara at the Mercedes Championships; he shot a final-round 64 at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif., to finish eighth; and he was 28th at Doral. That kind of play, Faldo agrees, is not unrelated to his state of mind. "It's good," he says. "I'm happy, I think I've shown that. I'm having a good time out there, on and off the golf course."
The reason for Faldo's contentment has a mass of blonde hair and a pleasant manner. Cepelak is the daughter of a semiretired Albuquerque businessman. Until she abruptly fled school in a tabloid blaze last fall and began traveling the Tour with Faldo, she was just another communications major, albeit one with a single-digit handicap. They met when she introduced herself to him while he was practicing at the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson in January 1995, and apparently it was kismet. When Arizona women's golf coach Rick LaRose was surveying prospects for this season recently, he remarked, "We had one player drop out, one transfer and one run off with Nick Faldo."
Friends speculate that the golf bond between Faldo and Cepelak is strong. Gill is not as conversant in the game that has obsessed Faldo since he turned pro at 19 in 1976. "Brenna's a nice sweet girl, and they seem to be a good match," says Leadbetter. As Cepelak strolls Doral's Blue Monster watching Faldo's progress, she is polite but reticent. "No plans," she says. "I'm just living day to day, trying to be happy." Faldo's friends and colleagues agree that Cepelak seems good for him. He appears more easygoing than in the past. During a recent two-week break from the Tour, Faldo and Cepelak took in the Daytona 500 and a shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center. After his second round at Doral they went to a Miami Heat game at which they held hands. They appear to have much in common, despite the age difference.
Faldo's behavior is in marked contrast to what it was a year ago. The Faldos refuse to discuss details of their marriage, but it seems to have begun to unravel sometime before Nick decided to play the PGA Tour full time in 1995. He spent much of last season in the U.S. while Gill mostly stayed home in Surrey with the children. Faldo turned in his poorest performance in the majors in a decade, his best finish a 24th in the Masters. Leadbetter attributes the slump to Faldo's unhappy situation at home. "Obviously he was miserable in the marriage," Leadbetter says. "He was trying to find his happiness on the golf course. A lot had been brewing in him the last 18 months."
Faldo is fearless when it comes to change. Whether in his golf game or in his domestic life, he has displayed a willingness to start from scratch if it means improving his circumstances, no matter what the short-term cost. He risked everything in 1985 when he rebuilt his swing with the help of Leadbetter. His first marriage, to Melanie Rockall, ended in 1984 after 4½ years in a similarly abrupt fashion when Rockall discovered that Faldo had checked into a hotel with someone posing as Mrs. Faldo. It was, of course, Gill. "I can see parallels between what he has done with his golf game and what he has done with his personal life," Leadbetter says.