By Simon Lewis
IT SEEMS a little odd to think that the man who for so long harboured a reputation for his near-manic obsession with the pursuit of golfing excellence should be considering missing this week’s Open Championship due to a family commitment.
Nick Faldo, after all, did not win six majors without it coming at some considerable personal cost. Two marriages and a well-publicised bust-up with a girlfriend have been interspersed among the titles, along with an acrimonious end to one of the game's most successful player-teacher relationships that Faldo enjoyed with David Leadbetter for more than 10 years.
Yet the Englishman perceived by most to have been peculiarly and extraordinarily driven by his desire for perfection during the 1980s and 90s will slip away from the Kentish links of Royal St George's should his pregnant third wife Valerie go into labour over the next few days.
"It could be any time now," Faldo said, with his wife expecting their first child, his fourth, on August 2. "I'll have a helicopter on standby and if she goes into labour early then I'll be off. I want to be there."
Faldo has played every Open since 1976, and has won the auld Claret Jug three times, at Muirfield in 1987 and 1992 and St Andrews in 1990. He was also runner-up to Greg Norman at Sandwich in 1993. That's a significant cycle to break and while Faldo has lost none of his passion for golf and in particular for winning another major, he is, at 46, coming to terms with the fact that age is not on his side.
And while the obsessive nature that drove him to those three Opens and three Masters' green jackets may have faded with time, there is a frustration replacing it that all those 27 years of professional golfing experience are not being put to better use.
"It really irks me," he said. "I know so much more now than I did when I first started out, and I just wish I could have another go. If I was 20 again, my goodness what a difference it would make to have all this knowledge."
Faldo is convinced it is still not beyond him but he is realistic of his prospects.
"I need everything to fall into place at the same time. I have got to feel good physically, and the key for me will be momentum. When I hit my good drives they're great. When I hit good iron shots, they're really good. But as you get older your percentage slips down.
"When I look back at my era I was so consistent. That was my trademark. The skill on a links like Royal St George's is to keep getting the ball in the right area of the course. That is how I won at St Andrews in 1990. I was always pin high, I always had the ball in the right area. And that is about more than simply picking the right bloomin' club. It is about adapting to the wind, to the bounce, to the lie.
"That is where the ability of a true shot-maker kicks in. If you can keep your percentages up, if you can give yourself 12 chances on 18 holes and the other guy is only giving himself six chances, you've got a better chance of making a score than he does.
"The bottom line is that when I was at my peak I could make things happen. All the great champions in any sport can do that. They can drive quicker, they can ski down a mountain quicker, or ride up a mountain quicker.
"I had that ability. I had that vital fifth gear, but now it's a bit rusty. If I'm honest, I'd be very pleased to get into fourth gear next week."
One man who probably still knows Faldo's gears better than anyone else is his one-time mentor David Leadbetter. In their years together between 1984 and 1998 there's was the most successful teacher/pro team in golf. But their partnership came apart in late '98 when Faldo fired him by post, in a letter Leadbetter believes the golfer didn't even write himself.
The pair haven't spoken since and neither commented on the bust-up until the teacher gave an interview to golf writer Dale Concannon's for his biography of the player, 'Nick Faldo the definitive biography' which was published last year to rave reviews.
Leadbetter said Faldo was a great thinker, a great putter, a tenacious competitor, very focused and self-centred, as many of the top players have to be. But Faldo's swing, though possessing a great rhythm to it, was keeping him from becoming a major winner.
Leadbetter changed all that and after three years of working with Faldo, the pair were vindicated when Faldo won the Open at Muirfield in 1987.
But it was not just a case of sitting back and admiring the handiwork and Leadbetter said: "The golf swing is always an ongoing project - it's not something you just stop. You are always tinkering and tweaking it, which was something Nick loved. Hitting balls, try this, do that, really trying to refine it, refine it, refine it.
"He was obviously developing a lot more shot-making skills where he could hit different types of shot - draws and fades with the irons, controlling the distances that sort of thing. I always felt his best attribute was never his length - although at Augusta, he could work the ball so well, he could always hit these shots that caught the right slopes, so his driving statistics would be pretty good. Yet he was never considered long.
"He's a big guy but not what I would call a quick, dynamic moving guy. He wouldn't be a sprinter as much as a long distance man. I also think that part of the equation was when he was learning the game he used to practice at Welwyn Garden City on a very narrow practice area. He was always saying how he wished he had learned to hit it hard to start with, but he was so intent on keeping it in play so he wouldn't lose his practice balls! That's the sort of thing that sticks with you, unfortunately."
Another consistent and more appealing trait, though, was Faldo's dedication to the cause.
"He worked his rear off," Leadbetter told Concannon. "I'd say conservatively when we were together, he hit 500-800 balls a day, everyday, and that was in the heat and summer of Florida. Which was not pleasant that's for sure. I don't know how many balls we hit in total but it was thousands and thousands. He also kept up his short game too - he worked hard on that aspect of his game."
Considering how hard and for how long they worked together, you would have assumed the pair became close friends. But Leadbetter said their relationship was never anything more than a good business partnership.
"We socialised a bit. Not a whole lot. I stayed at his house periodically and would go to dinner periodically but Nick was always a very private person. He was very difficult to get close to. He has his circle of friends and we were always very cordial and we got on well together but he wasn't what I would call a great mate where you tell jokes and stuff.
"That was just the way it was. I think it's difficult for a lot of people to get close to Nick Faldo because he is so intense a lot of the time. I think he finds it difficult to get away (from golf) even with his family. He was always thinking about golf...golf. I mean golf was his life, really."
That was even the case when his decline as a player set in, Leadbetter believes, not long after his third Masters title in '96.
"He was still very determined. He had the strength of his convictions, that what he wanted to achieve, he could achieve. He wasn't the most popular guy with all the players, that's for sure. He didn't go out to win friends and influence people. Very seldom does he call people by name. He's a hard guy to get close too.
"But I don't think it did hurt his performance. That's the thing. You don't have to be 'Mr Popular' to win golf tournaments. I think it might have hurt his income potential. I just don't think he warmed to people in the way Sandy Lyle did and other people do from a popularity standpoint. I always thought that he was really well respected by the golfing spectators, by his fellow players - but well respected rather than loved or liked."
The Nick Faldo Leadbetter said he now saw from afar is much the same as the one he worked with, although that was not the way Faldo had planned it.
"I see a guy struggling to regain something," he said. "He's working hard. He still wants it as much and it's almost like the harder he wants it, the worse things are becoming. It was his full intention when things were going well when he was in his mid 30s that he wouldn't be playing past the age of 40. He said that to me on two or three occasions. He said, 'I'll be trout fishing on the Trent somewhere. I'll be off with the kids. You won't see me on the Seniors Tour..' Now, here he is.
"It's going to be a battle for him. I'm not saying he is done because you can never say that about a guy like him, because he could always find something and prove people wrong. It's sad. Some people bow out gracefully, some people don't. It's not like tennis, where you know you are a step slower, or you're losing in the first round and you think, I'd better get outta here.
"Because in golf, there is always those little flashes that come back, but who's to say what mental damage this has done. I think he can get his technique back where he is pretty comfortable but whether he can get his mind-set back is another thing."
If Faldo's hopes of another Open victory are fading, though, he is channelling his energies far more positively than Leadbetter saw five years ago. The likes of Justin Rose, US Tour pro Luke Donald, Nick Dougherty and Paul Casey head a new generation of talented young golfers in England and Faldo is trying to see that they realise their ambitions of success in the majors through the Nick Faldo Golf Institute in Hertfordshire, passing on those 27 precious years of professional experience.
"The idea is to create shortcuts," Faldo said. "By passing on some of my knowledge, these guys don't have to waste time experimenting. I can work with them on technical aspects of the game, judgement, visualisation, the mental side. It is about putting together a good package. Then it is down to their commitment.
" I want winners, I want guys who enjoy winning. Believe me, that is the real thrill."