Six-time major tournament victor, and winner of 43 tournaments worldwide, Nick Faldo is enjoying his new role as a TV commentator
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
On a glorious Sunday afternoon in April of 1996, Nick Faldo completed an improbable comeback to win the Masters, the sixth and last of his major tournament victories. He had reeled in Greg Norman from six shots behind, once again putting his steel hammer down with a final round 67. The collapsible Norman shot 78.
It was a methodical, focused, strategic victory, the sort that we had come to expect from a player whose public persona was defined bysteely resolve, relentless pursuit and a competitor's cold heart. For Norman it was yet another fall from the carousel horse as he lunged for the brass ring, another major disappointment in a career marked as much by flameout as success.
Then came the unexpected. On the 18th green of Augusta National, his sword returned to his scabbard after the slaying, Nick Faldo gave Greg Norman a big, warm, bear-like hug. We hadn't been prepared for this. Nothing in Faldo's professional career had ever suggested that when he was done with his work, when he had dispatched his opponent, when he had reached the end of his tunnel and took hold of the trophy, that there was room for affection. But there he was, a rivulet of tear down his face, wrapping up Norman to express his condolences at having ripped the Green Jacket right off his back.
There was a chink in the armor of the Iron Chest, and through it shown a ray of humanity. In his fuller life, maybe this was who he was. "Certainly I had the reputation on the golf course that people assumed that was what I was off the golf course," says Faldo in an interview. "Obviously I was a dedicated guy. I honestly believed there was a window when you can compete. You know, one of my lines was I didn't want to get to 45 and wish I had done more or given more. I am sure there are plenty of golfers who later wake up and see that the golfing body clock is gone. You can't wind the clock back."
For the better part of 15 years, Nick Faldo was one of the best players on the planet, and certainly one of the most feared. As a championship player, on his way to three Masters and three British Open titles, 43 titles worldwide and a World Golf Hall of Fame plaque, Faldo was both fascinating and frustrating, a study in determination while studiously shying away from the cacophony that surrounds an athlete of world renown. He was obviously bright and overtly ornery. He was on his way to a goal and his eyes, his mind were focused on that goal and the public be damned. At least, that's what it seemed. There were quiet moments when he let his guard down and allowed his wit to shine, but they were rare.
Then he reemerged on television six years ago and the world began to see what we hadn't seen before, at least had not seen until he hugged Greg Norman at Augusta. Now, his championship career jettisoned for the television tower, he was all warm and fuzzy in his public persona, bringing his insight and humor to you with dazzling frequency. Do we have the real Nick Faldo now, or at least that part that seemed so suppressed as he climbed the ladder to stardom? Do we have the Nick Faldo who has abandoned what he called his Iron Chest for a warm tummy?
Sitting in an empty function space off the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, Faldo is answering questions. He does so fully and freely, in his conversational bits-and-pieces speaking style where subjects and verbs aren't always attached, where complex sentences defy grammar and punctuation, but somehow he manages to make rather perfect sense.
As he answers these questions about his championship career, about his new television career, about the relationship between his careers and his life, there is always the feeling that he is thinking of something else, something else he needs to do, something else he wants to do, some other road he hasn't traveled that must be worth traveling. Mind you, he's not being inattentive to his questioner, not brushing him off, not avoiding issues, even if he does not fully address them. He's relaxed, glib, humorous, reasonably quick to laugh. It's just, well, there is a lot going on.
He has a television schedule, as lead commentator for CBS and the Golf Channel, that's immensely demanding. He has a blossoming golf course design business. He has high profile corporate deals. He has his beloved Faldo Series that helps develop junior players in several corners of the world, from England to Dubai to the Pacific Rim to Rio. And he has four children, three from his second marriage and one with his third wife that require him to build in intense family time. Then there's the knighthood, the Sir Nick thing that Queen Elizabeth bestowed on him last November, the first British golfer since Harry Cotton to be given a knighthood.
Back in his playing days, few golfers could match his dedication. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, even the dogged Tom Kite. The resolve, the drive to succeed was part of Faldo's DNA. From the moment he started to hit balls in Welwyn Garden City, England, he was totally hooked and totally committed. And that commitment formed an enormous part of his public persona. All the foofaraw that was going on around him had to be ignored. He didn't have time for people, at least not those who didn't contribute to his goal. He had to be a champion, and that was it.
"I was naturally ingrained," he says with the naturally laid back demeanor of those who are so ingrained. "I left school at 16 in pursuit of becoming a professional golfer. My commitment and dedication as a 16-year-old was pretty darn good. Religiously, I would go to the course every morning, regardless of rain, hail, snow; the only thing that would stop me was ice. Inbred, natural dedication, passion. I loved it. I was so happy just going down there and playing, practicing, learning.
"I often get asked, especially at my Faldo Series, how many balls do you have to hit? When I'm asked that question, I know they aren't going to get there. For me, it was just daylight. When it was light I hit balls, when it was dark I came home. I was so happy."
It was this happiness that we seldom saw. To be sure, there were more issues pulling at his life than simply his desire to get to the top, not the least of which was his contentious relationship with the media. His first marriage, to Melanie, was brief. His second marriage, to Gil, produced three children, Natalie, Matthew and Georgia, over 10 years before his second divorce. He had a famously public romance with 19-year-old Brenna Cepelak that ended with her bashing his Porsche with a golf club. His third marriage, to Valerie, produced daughter Emma, but it, too, ended in divorce. All of this was keen fodder for the "red tops," the English tabloid press, with whom he warred and ignored. When he won the British Open in 1992, he rather amusingly acknowledged the press, thanking them "from the heart of my bottom."
"My personal life was totally different," says Faldo. "I was very happy off the golf course. Gil and I spent 10 years together and had three children.
I was a golfer and a daddy, enjoying the home, enjoying the spoils. I used to keep the golfer bit sort of a secret from the kids. Then we would be walking around England and someone would ask for an autograph and they'd go, ‘Why are you doing that, Daddy?' And their mum would say, ‘Daddy's a famous golfer. Daddy's Nick Faldo.'
"The best thing about kids is that a grown man can get on the floor and not feel embarrassed. I loved it."
The public never quite knew that side of him, however. His armor plating kept the family life inside of him. And it didn't exactly endear him to others, though former competitor and CBS colleague David Feherty found Faldo's resolve interesting, perhaps even admirable. It wasn't really until Faldo moved to television that Feherty finally got an inkling of the more complete man.
"I really think enigmatic is the wrong word, but it's not far off," says Feherty. "Hogan was enigmatic in an asshole kind of way. There isn't that with Nick. There is a neutrality to him. I'd tell you in a heartbeat if he had been an asshole, and a lot of people have given him that moniker.
I just saw a guy who was incredibly focused. I said, ‘Wow, that must be incredibly boring.' To sacrifice all the things I enjoy, the camaraderie, the laughs, the ridiculous situations I got into. He was on this relentless, unstoppable march to No. 1 and nobody was going to get in his way."
Feherty sees the same absolute dedication, the fastidious nature, the fussiness over details that Faldo the golfer now brings to Faldo the television commentator. "When he came to broadcasting he probably said more to me in the first half-hour than he had said in 20 years," says Feherty. "I knew he was a bright guy. He works very hard. He still in some sense is the same way he was. He wants to be the best he can be.
"I haven't really worked out how his mind works. He's unique among players I've met. Ballesteros was so emotional, mercurial. Nick was a commanding presence who had the ability to put the ball where he wanted to. He wasn't immensely long, even though he was imposing in size. He was very meticulous to the point of being anal about things. Hell, he used to practice dropping the ball. Even now, I'll be sitting in the gym looking in the mirror to see if there are any nose hairs poking out and he's working with a medicine ball sweating like a fat girl at her sister's wedding. He's unbelievably professional in everything he does. The man he is, I really don't know. But what I do know I like."
Not all are convinced that the Faldo we see today is the genuine article. Nick Price, a three-time major champion and longtime opponent of Faldo, isn't convinced that there is somehow a new Faldo.
"I suppose the thing with Faldo is that he was never a warm person at all," says Price. "He would not be someone to return friendship. You could be as kind as you could be to him and the next day he would walk straight past you. A lot of times he wouldn't even greet you with your name. He'd say hello and walk past you. He's a very strange person to try to figure out. He's very much his own person. He said he turned over a new leaf, what, eight years ago. Well, you can't be one person for 20 years and turn it around and ‘I'm all happy and friendly.' He had hurt a lot of people in the interim."
Price detested playing with Faldo. "I never enjoyed playing with him," he confesses. "He played so slowly. So deliberate. Invariably you would always be on the clock with him. And when they did put you on the clock, he'd ask why and meanwhile you were two holes behind the group in front of you. That happened on numerous occasions."
In the 1988 Open championship at Royal Lytham, the title hunt came down to Seve Ballesteros and Price over the final round, with Faldo also in their group. Price remembers the day vividly, though not fondly. "Seve and I both eagled the sixth hole to put some substantial difference between ourselves and Nick and the field," he says. "It became evident that one of us was going to win. Faldo behaved so badly that day. He tried to shift the focus from us to him. He would try to get people to stop walking who were 300 yards away. A dog barking, a cameraman, a pitiful display of petulance."
Scott Hoch, who lost a sudden-death play-off to Faldo in the 1989 Masters, remembers playing with him in the Swiss Open. "There was some local rule that you could remove rocks from the bunkers without penalty. I wasn't aware of it," he says. "I hit my drive into the face of a bunker and rolled back against a rock. We were walking close together and I say, ‘Just my luck, I got a rock behind my ball.'
"He says, ‘Yup, that's a shame.' He doesn't say anything about the rule. Anybody I know would have said you get to remove that. He might have thought I should have known that. He was not a good person to play with. He had tunnel vision and he didn't care about anybody. I would say that I have been around him some in the evening and he wasn't a bad guy."
The ruffling of professional feathers, the failure of marriages and romance, are not things that Faldo wants to get into. They happened, they can't be fixed now, and he is the person he is. "Regrets?" he says. "I don't like calling them regrets. Things happen and you make decisions. I went through a period where bells were ringing in my ears. You have a girlfriend and you think, ‘Boy, oh boy, what was I thinking? Why didn't somebody hit me.' Things happen where you go off in a direction in your life, a midlife crisis or two. Fortunately, you can laugh about them now. At the time you need some gutsy people around you. I've got good friends for 30, 40 years now, mainly outside the game. I kind of like that. Like to get away from the game of golf."
And he did get away from golf, even back when it was virtually his whole life. His children were an escape, and so was fishing. The solitude of fishing, its gentle rhythms didn't require the Iron Chest. And fishing produced one of his most memorable, and decidedly human, moments. "In 1987 I won the Open at Muirfield, my first major, and bought myself a split-cane fishing rod, 600 pounds sterling," says Faldo. "I'm fishing on this farm, on the river. I'm casting and give it a go and the thing gets stuck behind me. I give it a pull and I hear ‘mmmmmmmmmmooo.' I turn around and I've stuck it in the backside of a 400-pound Friesen cow. He's looking at me going ‘What the . . .' then he starts going. I'm thinking, ‘Oh, don't break the rod, break the line.' I start running after him. Seriously. I run about 30 yards and I pulled it out, the hook straightened out and it came right out of his butt. Whew."
Photography, sketching, sculpting, drums, tennis are all things that appeal to him, if he can make the time. The television schedule comes first, then the family time, then the golf course design things, the Faldo Series things, the corporate things. Early in 2008 he was at the TaylorMade facility in California when he got a phone call.
"Hallo mate, how are ya?" says the voice in a decided East End accent. "It's Nicko McBrain, the Iron Maiden drummer," says Faldo, obviously delighted that such a music legend would somehow be reaching out to him. "He said ‘I would love to play golf with you, you could give me lessons.' I said ‘You know, I am a failed drummer, frustrated drummer.' I said I would trade lessons for a drum kit. He brought the kit to the house [in Orlando] and we fitted the drum kit for me, which is more fun that fitting a set of golf clubs. He's super fussy like me. Everything has to be perfect. He's just like me. All the angles of the cymbals have to be the same. That took an hour. It was really cool. I'm a 54-handicap drummer. I've got a balcony in my two-story entry, there's a tiny curve in it and I plunked it there. I've got a drumhead that all the players at the Ryder Cup [he was the European captain in 2008] signed for me. I carry the drumsticks with me, but I haven't practiced much. I'm not as fanatical about it."
It's when he talks about all these sidelines of life that he really seems to get going, when he can't get the words out fast enough, when the mind is streaking with ideas.
On photography: "I love the work photographers do. How do they see those lines in the skyscrapers? I've met some really good photographers and I've said take me to Paris and I will go shoot bridges. Those wet streets in Paris. I was in Angkor Wat, they have trees growing up through the temples. I've got lots of things I would like to shoot."
On sculpture: "The last one I did was in school. It was a hand, beaten out of aluminum. Wonder if I still got that? My parents must have it. They have one of my old pots, clay pots. I put pens and pencils in it when I was about eight."
On doing all the things he wants to do: "I need to pack a rod, pack a tennis racket, a couple of chisels in case we find a piece of wood on the beach, a camera."
On living in America, in his house in Orlando (and this is where he really motors up): "At the end of the year, another goal is to spend a month in my own house. That would really be nice. What would I do? You know, I could supervise things. If it ain't right, it ain't square, if it ain't in the middle. When you look at things and think it could be better, you turn it. Can it be moved? Can it be made again? I'm living in the house, I want it to be right. I'm not going to say ‘I'll live with that.' I want it right. If we don't like it we do it again.' "
Sounds like Faldo, the championship golfer talking. The one who totally rebuilt his swing with David Leadbetter in the mid '80s, built a swing that would not just win tournaments, but majors. If it wasn't right, fix it. Practice dropping a ball. Hit balls until dark. Be committed. Be the best you can be.
"I think he's doing a great job of being the true Nick Faldo," says Ian Baker-Finch, another CBS colleague and former British Open winner. "He has a wonderful personality and sense of humor. But when he played, it was all about Nick. In the '80s, I spent as much time as anyone with him. His wife Gil and my wife Jennie were good buddies. He's 20 years more mature now. Back then he was totally engrossed in what he wanted to achieve. But everyone changes. It's just natural. I think everyone is trying to delve too deeply into that. He is who he is."
And now, he's Sir Nick. Queen Elizabeth chose him for knighthood in 2009 and his investiture was in November.
"It's a very humbling honor, to be recognized for my contribution to my sport," he says, ever so humbly. "My mind went straight back to when I was a kid riding through the woods with clubs strapped to my bike. Wow, a skinny kid from Welwyn Garden City, 35 years later this. An instant flashback to all the roads you have been on. You think you are a knight, and that conjures up Sir Lancelot on his horse. To be Sir Nick, that's pretty cool."
And Sir Daddy. "I told Matthew and Georgia on the phone together, Georgia was screaming," says Faldo. "Little Emma isn't quite so sure. We were watching the movie A Knight's Tale with Heath Ledger, the king is going to knight him, grabs his sword and Emma says, ‘Oh, I can't watch this.' She thought he was going to lop off his head. She looks at Dad and can't put it all together. ‘Are you going to be in a movie? Are you going to fight on a horse?' "
There is just so much going on, and he's now just so far removed from the championship years. He remembers the British Open in 1999 at Carnoustie when he failed to make the cut. "It was a black moment, dark," he says. "I couldn't do what I used to do. It couldn't come to me. At some point it occurred to me that I have to move on, that I could not be what I was."
So here he is-television commentator, designer, businessman, Daddy, Sir Nick. And without his Iron Chest we get to see more of him than we ever did, get to know him more than he ever allowed. Still an imposing man. Still an imposing personality. No longer the monolith.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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