A funny thing happened while everyone was bemoaning the lack of a dominant figure in golf, awaiting the era of Seve or Curtis or Greg. The imperious Englishman with the impenetrable personality, Nick Faldo, retooled his swing and became one.
The revelation that golf is living in the era of Faldo finally dawned on people at the 119th British Open, held, as befits such a historic demarcation, at the home of golf, St. Andrews. The tournament seemed to have all the toothmarks of greatness until Faldo took the bite out of the whole affair—not to mention out of a major-championship pretender, henceforth known as the Nursing Shark—by coasting undramatically away from the field with his relentlessly masterful play.
Faldo's winning total of 270 (67-65-67-71) was five shots better than the scores posted by the second-place finishers, Payne Stewart and Mark McNulty, whose 13 unders would have been good enough to win every one of the previous 23 British Opens held at St. Andrews, beginning in 1873. How dominant was Faldo? His 18-under total is the lowest score in relation to par at a British Open by five strokes (Tom Watson was 13 under when he won at Muirfield in 1980). In 72 holes on the Old Course's immense, humpity-hippo greens, Faldo never three-putted. He hit into exactly one bunker, a feat as improbable as walking blindfolded down The Scores last week—a St. Andrews street that hosted teenage revelers into the wee hours every night—without kicking over an empty bottle. Faldo made only four bogeys in four rounds—three at the famous 17th, the Road Hole. And in last Saturday's head-to-head duel with Greg Norman, the man who somehow is still ranked as the top player in the world, Faldo left his rival quivering in a gill net of three-putts, beating him by a cruel nine shots.
Faldo's win at St. Andrews, coupled with his successful defense of his Masters championship in April, makes him the first golfer to win two majors in one year since Watson did so in 1982. And it could just as easily have been three. At Medinah in June, Faldo missed a U.S. Open playoff by one stroke when his putt on the 72nd hole rolled teasingly across the lip. Had it fallen and had Faldo beaten Hale Irwin's and Mike Donald's two-over-par 74s the next day—not exactly a farfetched hypothesis, given Faldo's 70.5 stroke average in his last 13 major championships—he now would be the first player to have completed the first three legs of a modern Grand Slam.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. If Lee Trevino hadn't chipped in to beat Jack Nicklaus out of a tie at Muirfield in 1972, the Bear, who had already won the Masters and U.S. Open that year, might have become the first modern Grand Slam winner. But there are no yips, shanks or three-putts about Faldo's record over the last four years. Since winning the British Open for the first time in 1987, Faldo has played in 12 more majors. Altogether he has won four, lost a fifth (the 1988 U.S. Open) in a playoff and finished among the top four eight times. If that isn't dominant, then the wind doesn't blow across the Firth of Forth.
Actually, the wind didn't blow across the Firth of Forth last week, at least not sufficiently to defend the honor of the Old Course. As recently as May, drought-stricken St. Andrews had been "bare as a badger's bottom," in the words of one resident. But frequent rains over the last six weeks turned the course green in time for the Open, transforming the huge brown fairways into positively lush carpets by hardscrabble Scottish standards. The softened greens held long approach shots, much as their U.S. cousins do, so that without a significant wind to battle, the players could fire their irons at the bottoms of the flags. A tournament-record 50 players (out of a field of 156) broke par on Thursday, which seemed pretty good until a staggering 86 more came in under 72 on Friday.
Among this group was Arnold Palmer, who was playing in his last British Open, 30 years after his first appearance at St. Andrews renewed American interest in the championship. His goal was to make the cut, and when, after his 71 on Friday, Palmer stood even par through 36 holes, it was generally assumed he had done so. Among those the old lion had beaten were Watson, defending champion Mark Calcavecchia, Seve Ballesteros, Chip Beck and Lanny Wadkins. However, golf is a remorseless and unsentimental foe, even at St. Andrews. The low scores started tumbling in, and when the tally was done, Palmer had missed the one-under-par cut by a single shot. The cut was three shots lower than any other in the Open's history.
Some heretics went so far as to suggest that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which oversees the Open, should remove the Old Course from the list of potential host sites, arguing that it no longer provides an adequate championship test. "Usually when the wind blows around here, even the seagulls walk," responded Faldo. "Come play it then. This is a great golf course because of the atmosphere."
Indeed, it's tough to hate a place where most of the bunkers have names: the Coffins, Hell bunker, the Beardies, Strath bunker and the Sands of Nakajima. That last one guards the Road Hole, where Tommy Nakajima took a nine in 1984. The 17th again lived up to its reputation as the most entertaining par 4 in golf. Scott Hoch, cruising along at two under par on Friday, drove out of bounds and ended up taking a nine, thereby missing the cut.
Peter Jacobsen, who played the rest of the course in 13 under, played the Road Hole like a man swinging a car jack. He was six over par on it, despite a birdie in the second round. On Thursday, when Jacobsen shot 68, he had to play sideways out of the Sands of Nakajima and took double bogey. Then on Sunday he carded a rare and humbling "snowman"—a quadruple-bogey eight. Jacobsen drove into the heather, batted four grounders to shortstop and finally reached the green by putting over a swale. When he finally reached the swale he was greeted by sarcastic applause—the folks who sit in the stands at 17 are golf's equivalent of auto-racing fans who wait for a wreck. Jacobsen raised his arms in triumph, but needed two more putts to escape.