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E.M. Swift
July 30, 1990
After a masterful British Open, Nick Faldo ruled all of golf
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July 30, 1990

King Of Clubs

After a masterful British Open, Nick Faldo ruled all of golf

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The average score on the Road Hole for the tournament was 4.65. On Sunday, when 233 birdies were scored elsewhere, none was made at the 17th. Still, when viewed as a whole, this timeless course, made up of an amalgam of devilish bunkers, wide fairways, double greens, bumps, knolls and gorse, brings out the iron in a golfer's bloodline.

"The score is irrelevant," says Australia's Peter Thomson, a five-time British Open champion and a winner at St. Andrews in 1955. "The point is to find out who the best golfer is. Before this championship, there was a lot of debate over who was better, Faldo or Norman. Now there's certainly no question who's at the top of the tree."

The preliminaries went like this. Norman, long chastised by the press for getting off to slow starts in majors—of which he has won only one—shot 66-66 in the first two rounds to propel himself to the head of the field. Faldo, the pretournament favorite (London bookmakers had him teeing off at 7 to 1), shared the lead with Norman by shooting 67-65. Their closest pursuers trailed by four, so it looked as if a 36-hole duel had been fashioned between the two best players in the world. The billing invited comparisons to the 1977 classic at Turnberry between Watson and Nicklaus.

But on Saturday, Norman, unnerved perhaps by Faldo's opening birdie, three-putted the hole they call Dyke, and the leakage of strokes was on. Jerking his putts left like a man suffering fits of ague, Norman proceeded to three-jack the 9th, 10th, 12th, and 15th holes. He took 39 putts in all, drove into two bunkers, shot 40 on the back side and staggered off the 18th green nine strokes behind Faldo. Norman's 76 was the third-highest round of the day and his worst since his opening 78 at this year's Masters, a round, perhaps not coincidentally, he shot while paired with another great golfer named Nick—as in laus.

Faldo shot a majestic 67, walking the fairways like a usurper attending his own coronation. Here was a man who was in control of his game. Five years ago, in May 1985, Faldo was convinced that his swing would never hold up under the pressure of a major championship, so he flew to Florida and handed the swing over to teaching pro David Leadbetter, saying, basically, "Make it perfect."

Leadbetter, who will never find a more obsessive pupil, may have done so. The result is that Faldo seems almost mechanical when he plays, like a man who has learned the game by rote. After hitting a shot, be it a good one or the rare bad one, Faldo will often step aside and practice his backswing, pausing at the top to discuss the position of the club with his caddy, Fanny Sunesson, looking for all the world like some eight handicapper on a driving range.

Entering the final round with a five-stroke advantage over Stewart, who had shot three rounds of 68, and Ian Baker-Finch, Faldo gave a clinic on how to play golf from the front. He birdied the 1st hole from four feet, after having hit a nervy sand wedge over the Swilcan Burn, to increase his lead to six shots. Faldo gave that stroke back on the 4th hole, where he hit into his first and last bunker of the tournament, but he returned to 18 under par with a two-putt birdie on the easy par-5 5th. Then he settled down to a rock-solid string of eight straight two-putt pars.

About that time Stewart began making a move. It was difficult to tell just exactly what was meant, popularity or something else, by the wolf whistles Stewart attracted from the huge Scottish crowds. "You would certainly need to be paid large sums," wrote one journalist, referring to Stewart's endorsement contract with the NFL, "to make yourself look like a rest home for retired canaries." Not canaries, my good man. Birdies. And Stewart, who had chosen to dress like the entire NFL red-white-and-blue logo on Sunday, picked up four of them in the first 12 holes to move to within two shots of Faldo.

Stewart's situation was similar to, though somewhat less desperate than, the one Faldo faced during the last round of this year's Masters. Faldo trailed Raymond Floyd by four shots with six holes to play. So what did Faldo do? He birdied three of those last six holes to set up his victorious playoff. But the only thing anyone remembers is that Floyd gave away the championship by bogeying the 17th. At the 1989 Masters, Faldo shot the best final round of the tournament, an eye-popping 65, to get into the playoff with Hoch. However, the lasting memory of that day was the two-foot Hoch-as-in-choke putting fiasco.

The point is, it has taken longer than it should have for Faldo to be acclaimed as an outright winner. He is more than a star. The PGA Tour has plenty of those. He is a champion and a flat-out great golfer. Faldo has proved he can play with the lead; he has proved he can charge from behind; he has proved he can play on both sides of the Atlantic, on U.S. Open courses, British Open links courses, on soft greens and hard. He is the only player in the world today who can make those claims.

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