Monday, 15 July 2013

1987 Open Championship: Nick Faldo

It is one of the standard components of the numerous talent shows thrust upon us today to hear about a contestant's "journey". You know, the usual tear-filled drivel, typically accompanied by some nauseating soundtrack, highlighting the highs and lows of a competitor's route to where they are now. Had the concept existed in sport in 1987, then for a certain Nick Faldo the back story would have been lengthy and drawn out. For long parts it could have played out with the Road To Nowhere in the background.

As Faldo stood cradling the claret jug by the clubhouse of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield in 1987, it brought to an end a journey (sorry) that had begun two years earlier. A painful and sometimes soul-destroying experience, that involved deconstructing a very successful swing and building a new one capable of surviving the pressures surrounding the closing stages of a major. It was not an easy decision, but Faldo by 1984/85 knew that something had to be done.

After winning the 1978 British PGA, and the same event in 1980 and 1981, Faldo continued to have success in Europe, topping the money list in 1983, before crossing the Atlantic to win the 1984 Sea Pines Heritage Classic. But not all was rosy. Although Faldo finished outside the top-12 just twice in the Open Championship from 1978 onwards, his inability to close out a major championship – the 1983 Open at Birkdale and 1984 US Masters particularly upsetting - led Faldo to a chilling conclusion; something would have to change in his swing to make his dream a reality.

Many thought Faldo was mad to go back to basics and enlist the help of Florida-based coach David Leadbetter. Indeed, Leadbetter pointed out after Faldo's Open win that on the face of it, all looked well with his pupil's swing when they first got to work: "The swing looked beautiful. It had marvellous rhythm. But it camouflaged a number of faults". Working firstly on the backswing and then his downswing, Faldo was initially reluctant to fully embrace what Leadbetter was trying to do, probably not surprisingly as Leadbetter informed him that it would take at least a couple of years to yield any results. But Faldo became determined to see things through, fully understanding that he would have a lot of pain before the gain.

Naturally things were not easy. Anyone who witnessed Faldo's sad display at the 1985 Ryder Cup must have wondered if Faldo would ever compete at the top level again, with 1986 similarly discouraging. But little by little, Faldo began to show signs of hope, and by winning the 1987 Spanish Open - his first win in three years, and a "major turning point" according to Faldo - the confidence was returning to his game. Such was Leadbetter's faith in Faldo's progress, that after a brief coaching session prior to the 1987 Open, before leaving the country he placed a £5 bet at 33/1 on his man to win at Muirfield.

Leadbetter may have been confident, but the bookies were looking elsewhere. Ian Woosnam, fresh from winning the Scottish Open by seven shots the week before, and Sandy Lyle were the Brits expected to fly the flag at Muirfield, with fellow Europeans Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer the favourites at 6/1, slightly ahead of defending champion Greg Norman (8/1) and 1980 Muirfield winner Tom Watson (12/1).

One of the 'Ten to Watch' in The Times was a little-known American (in Britain at least) by the name of Paul Azinger. Azinger was the current leader of the US Money List, with three wins so far in 1987, and by the end of the weekend, we would certainly know a lot more about this Open debutant, who came extremely close to matching the efforts of Ben Hogan (1953), Tony Lema (1964), and Tom Watson (1975), by winning the famous old trophy at his first attempt.

Rodger Davis would make the early running, his first round 64 (seven-under par) accomplished in the kinder weather conditions on the first day. Davis was rebuilding his career, after quitting the game three years previously to spend more time with his family and to invest in a hotel venture on the Gold Coast of his native Australia, but after losing £200,000 and nearly reaching bankruptcy, he returned to golf, working his way up from the bottom once more, and now sitting proudly at the top of the Open leaderboard.

Faldo started solidly, a 68 putting him well in contention, although after birdieing the first three holes, he may have felt some frustration at not building upon his great start. Azinger matched Faldo, the pair joined by Nick Price and US Masters champion Larry Mize, who were all a shot behind Bob Tway, Ken Green, and the 1972 champion Lee Trevino.

It would be Azinger who would lead at the halfway point, his 68 giving him a six-under total of 136. Faldo's 69 in persistent rain was a fine effort, placing him one stroke off the lead, along with Davis (73) and Payne Stewart (66). Langer and Watson both shot their second round of 69 that week to sit two behind Azinger, but for others things did not go quite so smoothly.

Ballesteros had to birdie three of the last four holes just to make the cut, and a poor first round of 76 by Lyle hampered his hopes greatly of challenging over the weekend. Woosnam however was positioned nicely, just three off the lead and ready to make his move, and Greg Norman had shot two level par rounds to trail Azinger by six. Yet come the Saturday, Muirfield bared it's teeth, greatly reducing the chances of someone coming from the pack to make a challenge. Seven years previously, the weather at Muirfield was so obliging, and Tom Watson so superb, that the winning score was 271 (thirteen-under par). Saturday and Sunday in 1987 were not so accommodating.

The wind speeds of 40mph on the Saturday actually forced the R&A to shorten four holes playing into the wind, fearing that the fairways were out of reach off the tees. Just four men - David Frost, Ray Floyd, Ken Brown, and Jose-Maria Olazabal - broke par on a day that twelve scores of 80+ were recorded, in conditions very much conducive to separating the men from the boys.

Azinger, Faldo, Watson and Craig Stadler managed to get through the experience relatively unharmed, each shooting 71 to leave a congested leaderboard after three rounds. Going into the final round, Azinger still held a one shot lead over Faldo and Frost, with Stewart, Watson, and Stadler two behind, and Floyd a shot further back, the Americans dominating the leading positions, and hoping to continue the fine record of their nation at Muirfield.

If anything would emphasise the new found consistency in Faldo's game then it would be that final round at Muirfield on Sunday July 19. Eighteen straight pars under increasing stress allowed Faldo to claim his first major, fully justifying the swing changes he had worked on endlessly with Leadbetter. But Faldo's is only half the story, on that infamous day of mizzle in 1987.

Despite Faldo bravely rescuing pars from bunkers on holes 7, 8 and 10, it appeared for long periods of time during the final round that all Faldo's hard work would count for nothing. Azinger went out in 34 (two-under par) pushing his lead to three shots, and as others fell by the wayside (Stadler, Frost, Watson, and Floyd), and the likes of Woosnam and Price failed to get going, it was the American's title to lose.

As Nick Faldo could testify at the time, the final nine holes of a major championship are a severe examination of the technique of a player as well as their mental fortitude. In portents of what was to follow, Azinger found sand at 10 and dropped a shot, and a three-putt on 11 cut his lead to just one. He held the lead until the 17th, but as Azinger teed off and Faldo marched down the last, the mist gathered even more, suffocating the players as the tournament conclusion neared.

Whereas Faldo perfectly split the fairway, Azinger again located sand, and was forced to chip out sideways: Advantage Faldo. Faldo proceeded to hit a nerveless second shot to within forty-feet of the flag, and although his first putt was a little shaky, the five-foot return showed balls of steel, his eighteenth par giving the Englishman a fighting chance of securing the title. As Faldo left the green, Azinger was bogeying the 17th, the cheers ringing around the galleries as the scoreboard by the last green was updated.

A par at the last would still be good enough for Azinger to force a play-off, yet after playing an ideal tee shot, his second was pulled into a greenside bunker, again to the huge appreciation of a partisan British crowd. Azinger's stance was awkward, so much so that he could only pitch to within 27-feet of the hole, leaving him with an extremely unlikely chance of the par that would equal Faldo's four round total of 279 (five-under par). Alas Azinger’s putt came up short, the expression on his face painting a picture of exactly what it was like to let a major slip through your fingers.

"I knew I'd do it. And I knew I had to do it," commented Faldo to the press in the aftermath of his victory, as he joined the illustrious list of former Muirfield winners in Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Trevino and Watson. Long gone were the Nick Fail-do/Foldo headlines in the Monday morning papers, as Mr Par-fect was lauded for his guts and courage in changing his swing completely and ending up as an Open champion.

In the many interviews involving Leadbetter post-Muirfield, the coach was gushing in his praise for Faldo and all the hard yards he had put in: "He hung in when others would have dropped out. Come hell or high water he was determined to get it right". Driven is as good a word as any to describe Faldo.

Amongst the general feeling of British euphoria was a concern over how the crowds had reacted at Azinger's misfortune, R&A chairman Alistair Low apologising to the runner-up and voicing his disgust at what he perceived as a poor show: "I certainly cannot recall such rank bad sportsmanship and it marred the end of a great championship". Low had a point to a degree - the spontaneous cheer at the last as Azinger's ball found the bunker didn't sound great - but to expect a home crowd to not react as the chances of their man improved was a little naive. And Azinger admitted that he was so disappointed in himself that the reaction of the crowd had hardly got to him.

For Faldo, the 1987 Open was the confirmation that he had been right all along in the path he had chosen, and his career never looked back. An important member of the 1987 Ryder Cup winning team, Faldo came close at the 1988 US Open, losing to Curtis Strange in a play-off, and put in a brave defence of his Open crown at Lytham. In all, he would add three Masters titles and two more Open wins to his CV, to become one of Britain's most successful golfers ever - only Harry Vardon's seven majors outstrips Faldo's achievement - as Faldo, with the aid of the now famous Leadbetter, left the ranks of good to become truly great.


  1. Faldo is a great, and he's never really got the credit he deserves from the media. Instead what he mainly seems to have got is being slated on The Vicar of Dibley and people banging on about the 2008 Ryder Cup. He deserves a lot better.

    1. I agree entirely. Faldo was a hero of mine, a man who wanted to be the best so much that he risked his career to make himself better.

      His six majors and Ryder Cup record alone are reasons to celebrate one of the finest golfers Britain has ever produced.

  2. I've read this article with sincerely and I've learn many thing from In Game Training