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Sir Nick Faldo won three Open Championships from 1987 to 1992. None were won through pure talent alone, but all three were grounded in a level of dedication that few sportsmen or women have ever known.
Standing on the 15th tee at Muirfield in 1992, with just four holes to go in his tournament, Nick Faldo lay two shots behind leader John Cook. Having started the final round with a four-shot lead, the Englishman’s bid for his third Open Championship in six years was on the ropes.
But Faldo had been working for nearly a decade to conquer this exact situation. Under the most strenuous circumstances, England’s most successful golfer was stoic and unrelenting.
“Something clicked with my mental strength,” Faldo said. “I honestly said to myself as I walked off the 14th green, ‘Just forget everything. You’ve got four holes to play and you’d better play the best four holes of your life’.”
A decade earlier, Faldo was incapable of displaying such mental stability. In fact, Faldo’s perceived inability to handle the biggest moments forced his hand to make one of the most radical decisions any professional golfer has made in the last 50 years.
Nine years earlier, during The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1983, Faldo was posing a real threat to the leaders over the weekend. It was the then-25-year-old’s best chance yet to win a major, and he was threatening to become the first British Champion since Tony Jacklin in 1969.
“I learned very quickly that I loved playing with the buzz,” Faldo said. “I needed that extra bit of atmosphere. I was quite happy. You go through all the butterflies in your stomach in the morning, all that apprehension and then finally when you walk onto the practice ground, you think, ‘oh, relief!’ Finally you take the balls out and start hitting golf balls.”
“Now I’m in my comfort zone, so that was all good to know. That was all good, how much I enjoyed that feeling and the whole experience of it. But the big learning curve was Sunday afternoon. By the time I got to the 10th tee, I was now leading The Open and, bottom line, I couldn’t handle it.”
After racing into the lead after the front nine on Sunday, a less than stellar back nine saw Faldo drop to a share of eighth position. As well as knowing how much he loved the thrill of contending in The Open, Faldo now knew his game simply was not built for major success.
“And it was teaching me really fast,” he said. “If you want that feeling and you’re not quite prepared to handle it, you’ve got to elevate your game just a touch.”
“I guess (1983) started to sow the seeds that ‘Hey, if you want to win The Open, you’ve got to have a little bit more’, and that little bit more I was looking for was better shot-making. I was old school, a lot of leg action, a lot of hand action, especially with the equipment. The ball would start low and then climb high and had a lot of spin on it.”
In the winter of 1983, now with a thought in his mind that was beginning to grow, Faldo mulled over a decision that would change the course of his golfing career forever.
“I was in South Africa and I guess that’s when the little light bulb hit me and I said ‘Right, I’ve really got to do something about this now.’ David Leadbetter was there and that’s when we started talking and sowing the seeds. I thought about it for another six more months but that started to sow the seeds of how to rebuild my golf swing.”
Faldo was not aware of the risk he was undertaking in completely rebuilding his swing, and the possible effects it could have on his career. But having come close to winning The Open at the tender age of 26, he was certain his swing was not good enough to accomplish what he wanted.
Faldo continued to perform at a high level in 1984, winning his first PGA Tour event and his 11th European Tour title in May, as well as contending again in The Open Championship at St Andrews. At around that time, despite continuing his good form, Faldo pulled the trigger on making the swing change with David Leadbetter.
“It was by the end of 1984,” Faldo said, “even though I’d won in America in early 1984, that’s when it really hit me and I thought ‘No, this isn’t good enough, I need to rebuild things’.”
“At the time I didn’t think of it as a risk because I couldn’t foresee what was going to happen, how much hard work it was going to be and what was going to be the process. I was with David Leadbetter at Muirfield Village in 1985 and I missed the cut and I’m playing lousy. So I said, ‘Right, OK, what are we going to work on, what are we going to do with it?’”
“And then we started talking about this new backswing, new rotation of the arms and all that sort of thing and, my goodness, in hindsight it was the most stupid decision of my life. You’re mid-season, changing a backswing, and then you’re grinding on getting this new position but you’ve still got all the old other bits!”
“I mean it had no chance, no chance. But off I went with all my faith and trust in David and we started working on these positions and of course, sure enough, my game just went rapidly downhill even though I’m working my tail off.”
As Faldo’s golf began to deteriorate at alarming speed, a number of his sponsors jumped ship. With the exception of a few businesses who stuck by Faldo, the Englishman’s livelihood was becoming more and more tenuous.
“There must have been something in me because I never lost faith,” Faldo said. “My determination was still there, because I was lousy. I mean, I would practice like crazy. I’d be at home and I would literally disappear down to the golf course. I’d go five times, five different sessions, go down, hit balls, come back.”
“You always think you’re improving, and then you go off to the next tournament and sure enough you’re three over par after the first nine and then you just scrape the cut or miss the cut. You know your performances are lousy.”
As times became tough during 1985, Faldo never lost the determination that he would become renowned for. While he always possessed superb hand eye coordination and proprioception, his true golfing talent was the dedicated disposition that was so prominent in his life since he was a young boy.
Living in Welwyn Garden City just north of London, Faldo grew up an only child in the 1960s and early 1970s. His mother, a dressmaker, and his father, an accountant, would support him in his activities, but from a very young age Faldo was comfortable in his own company.
“I’m an only child so I learnt quite quickly to entertain myself,” Faldo said. “I was an outdoor boy and I loved to play and I always wore shorts under my jeans because when I went out and played, I got filthy. I was just covered, you know, I just loved it.”
Faldo’s ability to enjoy time by himself, filling his days with playing in his garden and around his local neighbourhood, meant that with or without his friends he was content and comfortable.
He participated in a number of individual sports and would often swim and cycle the days away in his pre-teenage years. Faldo says those sports, and his contentment in solitude, shaped the golfer and person he became.
“You can see how all those things moulded me, especially being at home as an only lad with your parents. That did mould me, so once I discovered golf I was more than happy to head to the practice ground and beat golf balls all day.”
Faldo famously found golf at a remarkably late age for one of the game’s greatest ever players. Having never hit a shot until the age of 14, the young boy from Welwyn Garden became hooked after watching The Masters and The Open on television in 1971.
Faldo’s drive and dedicated temperament was again apparent once he found golf, but not just in the playing of the game.
“I’d leave the house at 8am and I’d be there by 8:15am,” he said. “Originally when I first joined the club I didn’t have a locker so I had to take my clubs each day and I had to improvise.”
“I bolted on a piece of wood onto my old cow handlebars. I only had a small little bag at that time and I used to put those bungee things on and ride off through the woods to get there.
“It was hard work because it was a steep mud hill, which was fine to walk up, but coming back I used to attempt to go down this hill in one go. It was more than a couple of days where you had to bail out because you’re getting it wrong. It was too slippery and you’re starting to go so you had to roll it over and just let everything crash. So that was the daily routine of a young golfer!”
While Faldo had his troubles getting to and from the course, there were few such issues on the grounds themselves.
“Every day I’d get to the course and I’d head straight to the practice ground with my bag of balls. There was a little tree down there and I would hit shots and I could entertain myself. I stayed there and hit balls all morning and I developed,” he added.
“You would think that a little 150-yard range stuck in the corner of a golf course would feel really deprived, but little did I know that something incredibly important happened to me. I hit every single shot at a target, at a flag, with purpose. And then eventually you start shaping shots. You know, hitting big draws and low things and running it in, all for entertainment.
“And then I’d go out and putt for at least half an hour or so (after lunch). And then I’d head out to play and 95 times out of 100 I’d be playing on my own, I guess. The minimum I would play is 27 holes.”
“So that was it. I played like that all day and quite often I’d keep going till dark. That was just a normal day and, guess what, we did the same next day and the same the next.”
In 1973 Faldo attended his first Open at Royal Troon and duly mimicked the players he watched at his home course. Faldo progressed with such vigour and rapidity that just a year later, only three years after picking up the game, he competed in the English Amateur Championship. The next year, in 1975, he won the event, and just two years later in 1977, he would play in his first Open.
“Many people talk about my fanatic commitment to the game,” Faldo said, “But if you love what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it, you’re not clocking up the hours. No, once I got into golf and was fascinated by it, I left school at 16 to literally head to the practice ground and I’d go down every day quite happily. I absolutely loved it.”
Faldo’s commitment and dedication to golf is a thing of legend, but after the heartbreak of The Open in 1983, he knew that dedication alone couldn’t conquer any mental hurdles he may have been experiencing, especially with a homemade swing.
The answer, to create a more consistent and technically sound swing that could create a more manageable ball-flight and stand up under pressure, seemed simple enough. In golf however, the simplest sounding things are often the most complex.
“There must have been something in me because I never lost faith.” Sir Nick Faldo
In 1986, Faldo’s swing was still a work in progress, and his game was truly in the dumps. The dogged Faldo just managed to retain his playing privileges for the next year on the PGA Tour, thanks in large part to an inspired fifth-placed finish at The 115th Open, but consistently good golf seemed a world away.
At the start of 1987, the once promising young Englishman had missed the first two majors of the year for the second year running, and had not won a professional event in nearly three years.
But quite quickly, things began to look up. Leadbetter’s teaching changes finally began to sink in and, after winning the 1987 Spanish Open at the expense of his great rival Seve Ballesteros, Faldo had his confidence back.
“That (Spanish Open win) was the big turnaround, quite amazing, and I don’t know how I did it,” Faldo added. “I can just thank up there for that one. How I kept my determination to just keep doing it! When I went to the baggage claim the guys would be mimicking (my swing), and they were all going and giving it that. So I knew that nobody thought I was doing anything right until it finally clicked.”
Suddenly, Faldo was back to winning ways, and back at The Open Championship, the tournament that started it all. The tournament that inspired his copying of professionals in 1973, the tournament he debuted in as a 20-year-old just six years after taking up the game, and the tournament that inspired him to tear everything down in search of glory.
Having fully rebuilt his game, Faldo arrived at Muirfield in 1987 in good form for the first time in years, and the omens were positive before the event even began.
“I had a good feeling about that week,” Faldo said. “I was messing around with putters and the old tented village was all the way down to the right of the first, so I’m walking back and I saw the famous big yellow leaderboard with ‘Welcome to Muirfield’ on it and I looked and I saw ‘Faldo’ right on the top. And I thought, alright, I can handle that, keep walking.”
Faldo proved he could handle the pressure throughout the week, staying in the top five after each day’s play. After the first three rounds, he sat one shot behind leader Paul Azinger. What transpired on Sunday showed the character of one of the most determined players to ever play the game.
Faldo had changed his swing for these exact occasions, to be able to control his ball flight in tough conditions and to hold up under pressure. In doing so, and now fully comfortable with the changes, he had unknowingly strengthened his mind in the most impressive way.
“That was where all my years and years of individual life and focus just came in,” Faldo said. “That all kicked in because there you are in your own little world, on a really tough golf course in tough conditions. That’s your little world and you’re out there churning out good shot after good shot and fighting, and that was quite amazing.”
So sure of his swing under the most intense pressure, Faldo played 18 holes with supreme nerve. He recorded 18 consecutive pars for one of the most famous rounds in Open history, staying steadfast as others around him raced ahead and tumbled down in equal measure of volatility.
His level-par round of 71 was good enough for a one-stroke victory over Azinger and Rodger Davis, and provided vindication for the risk he took four years earlier.
“I felt that adrenaline just going out of my shoulders,” Faldo said. “I think it would be fair to state that I’d been carrying it for four years, since 1983, so when you finally realise you’ve done it, it was quite a feeling.”
In 1989 and 1990, Faldo would win back-to-back Masters titles before returning to The Open in 1990 at St Andrews as a three-time major champion. Many in the media and golfing world doubted Faldo, but the Englishman silenced his critics and produced brilliant golf to steamroll the field and claim his second Open Championship by five strokes.
Two years after his triumph at St Andrews, Faldo stood on the 15th tee at Muirfield, four holes away from claiming his third title in golf’s original major. As had been the case at the start of The Open in 1987, Faldo knew he could handle having his name atop the leaderboard, and he knew he could put himself back in that position.
Faldo challenged himself to play the best four holes of his life, and by his own admission, he “just about did”.
“I hit the best 5-iron of my life at 15, a little knockdown one,” Faldo said. “Then (on 17) I hit it 20-feet, pin-high left, that was one of the best 4-irons of my life.”
Faldo had birdied 15 and 17 and now found himself with a one-shot lead standing on the 18th tee.
“And then I came to the last, oh my gosh. When I walked off the green, I’d already sensed the murmurs at what had happened up in front. John Cook had taken five, and I just went ‘Four to win The Open, four to win, four to win, four to win’.”
“I hit a good 3-wood down there and I had 197 yards into a right-to-left wind and that was a 3-iron in those days. That was probably the best shot I ever hit because it’s four to win, and I stood over that thing and I said ‘Just get it back this far, just get it there and let muscle memory take over’ and that’s all I had to do.”
Faldo parred the 18th to complete the closing four holes in two under and finish the event at 12 under, enough for a one-stroke victory. His third Open title proved once again how far his swing, and mindset, had come.
To achieve greatness in sport, commitment and dedication is a necessary part of the process. This truism permeates across all sport, but in the game of golf, its message rings all the more true.
Faldo, a man who has played in The Open on his birthday 22 times, personifies that notion perhaps as well as any golfer in history. His drive and determination to gain the skill to win golf’s original major propelled the Englishman from a superb talent to an all-time great.
In rebuilding his golf swing, Sir Nick Faldo took the ultimate risk. The ultimate rewards were surely worth the effort.