Unburdened, Faldo has been able to better implement the minute improvements he and swing coach David Leadbetter are constantly incorporating into his game. Since December, "when everyone else was getting fat," says Faldo, he has focused on his putting, which suffered in recent years because of his emphasis on ball striking. "Nick had become a streaky putter," says Leadbetter. "He was missing a lot of putts in the eight-to-20-foot range that you hole when you're winning tournaments. Nick's full swing has great rhythm, but he tends to lose rhythm in his putting."
Says Faldo, who averaged a superb 26 putts a round at Riviera, "My new approach is to get up to the ball, stop messing about and hit it."
Also in December, Faldo embarked on a change in his grip on full shots, turning his left hand clockwise the width of one knuckle. "It's a more powerful position," says Leadbetter, who estimates that Faldo can hit the ball an additional 10 to 15 yards when he needs to. "We're trying to get a little more snap into his swing, a bit more pop to his shots. Nick's swing is kind of like a metronome, very calm. A little bit more speed, a little bit more leverage, will help."
Leadbetter admits that the change was, in part, influenced by Tiger Woods. "We've based Nick's whole game around control, and it's the biggest reason he's won six majors," Leadbetter says. "But you look at the way Tiger is able to crash the par-5s and it's obvious that length is an asset. No question Tiger has spurred people on. There's a new kid on the block, and we've got to put in that little bit extra."
Faldo says the grip change has improved the consistency of his backswing more than it has increased his distance. He's also more reserved about the effect of Woods. "It's very difficult to tell yet if he's improving the standard of golf," Faldo says. "He has gotten the attention of us golden oldies. We have to play hard."
Faldo did that at Riviera, along with several other veterans who seemed at home on the 70-year-old course. Scott Hoch, Don Pooley, Stadler, Payne Stewart and Tom Watson—all 40 or older—led at some point during the first 54 holes. Faldo took the lead for good with a 68 last Saturday. After the round he headed for the practice range, where, with caddie Fanny Sunneson and Cepelak close by, he hit dozens of pitch shots as twilight closed in.
That was the shot that made the difference on Sunday. Faldo came out strong with birdies at the 1st and 5th, and made the turn in 33, two ahead of Hoch and Stadler. Then on Riviera's 310-yard 10th, the famous short par-4, Faldo laid up with an iron and hit an 87-yard pitch to within five feet of the hole. While Stadler, also playing in the last group, three-putted for bogey, Faldo sank his putt to gain a four-shot advantage. On the par-5 11th he hit the same wedge, only from 108 yards, to within a foot and stretched his lead to five. "That was the killer," said Stadler.
Afterward Faldo endorsed himself for selection to the European Ryder Cup team, aware that he probably won't qualify on points. "Let's put it this way," he said. "If I was captain and Seve had just won the L.A. Open, he'd be on my team. That's my message to him."
It was further proof that Faldo's passion for the game remains as intense as ever. One more little cup will give him seven majors, a number exceeded by only five men—Jack Nicklaus (18), Walter Hagen (11), Ben Hogan and Gary Player (9), and Watson (8). "I've never gotten bored or fed up with the game," says Faldo. "And I feel I've learned so much, especially over the last five years, that I want to keep playing. I have such a great knowledge of the game, and now's the time to use it."
Faldo's American Plan might work out after all.