As Nick Faldo stood on the 72nd fairway at Muirfield that day in July 26 years ago, thousands of spectators lined the fairway and stood five deep behind the green. Millions more watched on television to see if Faldo could follow in Sandy Lyle’s footsteps two years earlier and become another British winner of the Open, the second in three years and the third since Tony Jacklin at Royal Lytham in 1969.
As Faldo prepared for his second shot to the last green, I was among the straggling group of journalists squatting beside him, a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other, and a pair of damp socks on my feet. I had walked all 18 holes with Faldo and wondered now whether he was going to bear out a rather rash prediction I had made in a book I’d written about him a little more than two years earlier.
A typical journalistic lack of restraint combined with a desire to make an eye-catching statement had made me pen the following sentence: “I am sure that Faldo will win the Open before he reaches his 31st birthday.” Crouching, I wondered whether the next few minutes would see my prediction come true or whether either Paul Azinger or Rodger Davis, with whom Faldo had battled throughout the afternoon, would win his first major championship.
As Faldo went through his pre-shot routine, I noticed he was doing what he always did when he was nervous. He was frowning with concentration and his tongue flicked repeatedly across his lips. I, meanwhile, was quite calm. In that, at least, I was obeying the rules of the press box and remaining as aloof as possible from the spectacle that was unfolding in front of me.
The signs were good that Faldo would cope with the stress he was feeling. In 1985, he had gone to David Leadbetter and had his swing remodeled to make it technically more sound under pressure. It took hundreds of thousands of balls and just under two years before he began producing the steady scores that had been beyond him before. Privately he knew he was close to his best and on the eve of the Open his friend Danny Desmond sensed as much.
“At dinner one night the conversation turned to the Open and I said to him, ‘Come on, Nick. Can you win it?’” Desmond told me later. “Nick smiled knowingly, I thought, and changed the subject. I had the distinct impression that he fancied his chances then.”
When he finally swung, Faldo’s iron found the green, and he two-putted. It was a great deal harder won than those bare words would suggest—his 18th par of the afternoon, a stat that would cause people to label him a dull, methodical grinder.
I knew that was inaccurate. What was taken for caution was actually his careful nature, a trait that prevented him from cutting his fingernails the week of a tournament for fear of altering the feeling in his hands as they gripped a putter.
An hour later, as Faldo held up the claret jug, I recalled something else I’d written about him. The last words of the book’s epilogue read as follows: “a most gifted golfer is Nicholas Alexander Faldo; a most misunderstood one as well.”
Before his first victory in a major championship, Faldo was thought to be something of an enigma; after, he remained so. Come to think of it, he still is.
John Hopkins is the PGA’s Lifetime Achievement in Journalism recipient for 2013.