Although Nick Faldo's aim in life is to collect what he calls "the little cups," he doesn't think small. When he decided two years ago to move to the U.S. and play the PGA Tour full time, his goal was to transform himself from the most significant golfer of the last decade to an alltime great. Already owning little cups from five major championships, Faldo believed the better weather, practice facilities, courses and competition here would contribute to the most productive years of his career.
It didn't quite work out that way. Faldo's brilliant Masters comeback last April at the expense of Greg Norman will go down as one of the most dramatic ever, but it didn't make up for what was otherwise an erratic two seasons. In 1995 Faldo put together his worst record in the majors in 10 years, with a tie for 24th at Augusta his best finish. And except for that third green jacket, '96 was also a disappointment. The last time Faldo was on our radar screen was at the British Open at Royal Lytham, where in an eerie parallel to Augusta he started the final round six strokes behind and paired with the leader, Tom Lehman. Although Lehman was far from sharp, a surprisingly jumpy putter did in Faldo, whose reputation as a closer in the majors was diminished when he finished fourth. Faldo wasn't scaring anyone in Tour events, either. In two years he won once, at Doral in '95, giving him, along with his victory at Hilton Head in 1984, only two titles in 139 regular Tour starts since 1979. With Faldo turning 40 this year, his American experiment was bordering on failure.
But that perspective changed last week at the Nissan Open at classic Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where Faldo turned in the kind of vintage performance that he had been working for. In a shimmering Southern California setting, the Englishman carefully constructed a sequence of 66-70-68-68 for a 12-under-par 272 to defeat Craig Stadler by three strokes.
The elegant 6'3" Faldo fits in wonderfully at Riviera. The sprawling Spanish-style clubhouse, where Hollywood rakes like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. once hung out, provides a perfect backdrop. Faldo's also stimulated by the rolling fairways, artful bunkering, tricky winds and treacherous greens of a course whose nickname—Hogan's Alley—evokes his idol. In such a big-time atmosphere Faldo once again became a big-time player. If more Tour events were held at masterpieces like Riviera, Faldo probably would have more than two victories. "No, it's not just another one," he said after his 39th win worldwide. "This tournament has history and atmosphere. This is the sort of golf course I'm meant to win on."
Clearly inspired, Faldo played "as solidly as I ever have." His is a different brand of golf from the pyrotechnics of Tiger Woods, who finished 20th, or Greg Norman, who lost a playoff in Dubai last week. Faldo is neither overpowering nor spectacular and rarely shoots the 64s and 65s that are needed to win on run-of-the-mill Tour courses. He thrives when par is a good score and subtlety, artistry, distance control and grit are more important than power. "I played exactly like I wanted to play Riviera," said Faldo, who had only four bogeys and one double over the 72 holes. "They used to write that I was mechanical and boring. I'm delighted to say I'm getting close to that again."
On a course with deep kikuyu-grass rough and small greens, mistakes were inevitable, and Faldo wasn't flawless. He hit only 46 of the 72 greens in regulation, but he missed in the right places, leaving himself simple chips that he usually placed within gimme range. Faldo made it look so easy that it begged the question: Why hasn't he won more often in the U.S.?
The answer: Over the last two years his troubles off the course have been far more difficult to recover from than an errant approach. They began when Faldo's 11-year marriage to his second wife, Gill, the mother of his three children, foundered at about the time he decided to play a full schedule in the U.S. By the end of the 1995 season, in which Faldo's one-up victory over Curtis Strange in the Ryder Cup was the highlight, the couple had separated. By early 1996 Faldo was dating Brenna Cepelak, a 21-year-old Arizona student who dropped out of school to travel with him. A divorce settlement that reportedly paid Gill $12 million was finally reached last fall. Gill bought a four-bedroom house in Orlando near Faldo's waterfront home at Lake Nona, which will allow Faldo to easily visit his children, Natalie, 10, Matthew, 7, and Georgia, 3. And Faldo purchased a house near his former family home in Wentworth, England, where his ex-wife and children live most of the time. Faldo believes his uneven play since moving to the U.S. is related to "my separation and my private life off the golf course. I've been renting houses and buying homes, getting my life sorted out. They were jobs that had to be done. It wasn't even like golf came second. Now those jobs are being taken care of, and life is going good. Now golf is very much what makes everything else happen in my life."
To all appearances, Faldo has settled into a happy life with Cepelak, who's in the gallery for all of his rounds and is frequently present at his practice sessions. In Los Angeles she and Faldo spent some time away from the course, shopping on Rodeo Drive and sampling restaurants in Santa Monica. Although friendly by nature, Cepelak, who was stalked by the British press at the outset of her relationship with Faldo, stiffened when approached by a reporter at Riviera. "I don't want to answer questions, thanks," she said politely.
"I think Brenna is a terrific person and very good for Nick," says Peter Jacobsen, who has known Faldo since the early '80s. "He seems happier, looser, more like he was when I first met him. He's having fun, and it's coming through."
Faldo agrees. "You've got to be happy off the golf course to be happy on the golf course," he says. "It helps tremendously."