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An aura is not something you want to lose or misplace. After all, getting a replacement is no easy matter.
There was a time not too long ago when Nick Faldo had a real aura about him. He was the iron-willed dynamo, a lethal blend of robotics and seething passion. Faldo was positively Hoganesque in his icy exterior, his obsession with perfecting his golf swing, his meticulous practice regimen and, most of all, in his ability to raise the level of his game for the majors.
Beginning with his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in 1988, Faldo went five years without placing out of the top 20 in the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA. During that period he won four of his five major championships (he had also won the 1987 British Open) and finished among the top five eight other times. He also regularly entertained early-season questions about the possibility of achieving the Grand Slam.
Faldo was also perhaps the least-liked player among his peers, a consensus sour-puss who was perceived as lacking tact or grace. Four of the men who in essence handed majors to Faldo by making 11th-hour mistakes—Paul Azinger (the '87 British Open), Scott Hoch (the '89 Masters), Raymond Floyd (the '90 Masters) and John Cook (the '92 British Open)—felt that the Englishman conveyed little empathy toward them afterward. Other players complained that Faldo's conversation during competitive rounds consisted of little more than barely audible grunts. Even Nick Price, who can honestly call himself a friend, once concluded that Faldo simply has very little need for other people.
But in the last two years Faldo has lost his aura. Price, the former No. 2 in swing guru David Leadbetter's stable, has taken over as the man of the majors, with Greg Norman also sliding in to drop Faldo to No. 3 in the Sony Rankings. But more significant is the fact that Faldo—whose consistency was considered almost eerie when he was No. 1 in the Sony Rankings in 1992-94 for a record 81 straight weeks—simply hasn't played well.
In contrast to the fairways-and-greens machine who excelled at holing crucial putts, Faldo of late has shown a sometimes shocking fragility at big moments. He has been prone to loose, off-line shots, most notably at last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he missed fairways with irons off the tee and failed to make the cut in a major for the first time since the 1987 U.S. Open. And Faldo has been haunted by his putter; at times he is seemingly just a three-putt away from becoming a complete head case on the greens.
"That's the thing about this game—it goes up and down," says Faldo. "I set high standards through 1990 and 1992, and if it always went like that, I'd take up the long jump and be going 34 feet. But I definitely went through a low period."
So at age 37, with his peak years dwindling, Faldo made a dramatic career move: He left his native European tour to rejoin the PGA Tour he had quit five years before. Last week, while Fred Couples, Price, Norman and a host of big names were duking it out in Dubai, Faldo debuted on the Tour in a different desert, playing in the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson.
At first his reception was frosty, literally—it snowed at Tucson National Golf Club on Tuesday. But things warmed up quickly, and Faldo circulated comfortably among the rank and file, shooting a polite middle-of-the-pack nine-under 278, to finish 25th.
"It's the start of the new me," said Faldo playfully, but not so playfully that it obscured an element of truth. "I feel like Barbra Streisand coming out after 25 years. We've both got big noses."