Tuesday, 16 September 2008

A Prick he may be, but he's a prick who knows how to win

"Where will I be during the Ryder Cup... Everywhere, that's where, EVERYWHERE"



From the moment the announcement was made, you knew the captaincy of Nick Faldo would find itself in controversy. There is no doubt that he has the credentials for the job - if he doesn’t, then no-one has – but Faldo has always been a man to do things his way and to hell with what anyone else thinks. And so it proved to be, as Faldo went against all the conventional wisdom of fans, pundits and past captains alike and chose the out of form Ian Poulter, a man without a win this year and who missed his last two cuts, over Darren Clarke, who was in rip-roaring form and had just won the week before.


But Faldo is anything but conventional and never cared what anyone said about him - as long as he won, he would do it his way.


And that’s exactly what he’s doing. Former Ryder Cup Captains Sam Torrance and Bernard Gallacher came out the day after Poulter got the nod for the wild card and said they would definitely have gone for Clarke. Gallacher was brazen about it, pointing out how Clarke is in better form, has a great Ryder record and is a natural partner for the likes of Westwood, Garcia or Jimenez, all of whom he’s had success with. He said


"I think the morale in the team might be a bit lower for picking Poulter ahead of Darren Clarke.”

“I don't want to pull the team down. Nick's his own man. I just had a sneaking feeling at the back of my mind that Nick Faldo would do something different. He is slightly controversial and he's lived up to it."

Gallacher nailed it firmly on the head there. Like many of us, he had an inkling that Faldo would do things differently, that he would have his own little plan and would not be swayed by public pressure. Faldo can be grateful to Clarke who put a brave face on his rejection and backed the decision, proving again to be a great team player. But it will be a decision which will be watched so closely that Poulter has no choice but to perform. Both he and his captain will be harshly judged if he doesn’t.

Then there is the matter of vice-captains, the usual thing being to have at least two to be spread out across the course, gathering information for their captain, advising him on how the pairings are performing. Faldo had picked two originally, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Paul McGinley but McGinley decided through the year that he wanted to try and play his way onto the team and resigned. Conventional wisdom was that he would be replaced; Thomas Bjorn thought to be an able willing deputy to step into the breech. Faldo again decided against it, feeling that one VC would be enough. The least controversial man of all time, Bernhard Langer strode into the debate on this one...

"I think he's making a mistake by not having someone with each group," said Langer.

"I know as a captain I can't be everywhere and I need information. I need to know how they're playing, what's going on, and I think he'd be better off if he had somebody going with each group."

Faldo's plan is to be everywhere, making decisions based on what he sees with his own eyes. This does strike as a bit of an arrogant approach to be taking, but think back to when Seve was captain and he really was everywhere, some players believing he had followed their entire match, when he had been flitting all over the course on his buggy. It’s do-able, but Seve also had more than one Vice Captain with him. I guess it keeps the spotlight firmly where Faldo enjoys it, right on him…

His opponent in the captaincy stakes for the Ryder Cup is a long time nemesis of his, Paul Azinger, quoted as calling Faldo a “prick” early in the build up to the match, but he was very much emphasising that was his view of the Old Nick Faldo. Faldo’s days of prickdom are apparently behind him according to Azinger, who struck up an unlikely friendship with Faldo in the ABC commentary box a few years ago, though they’re not exactly bosom buddies still. Azinger pointed out he was far from alone in his assessment, which he wasn’t. Few players liked Faldo, Faldo didn’t care. The original “Ice-man”, Faldo’s machine-like approach to the game, obsessed with perfecting his swing, served him well and if it meant he would be thought a prick for virtually ignoring his playing partners while he maintained his complete focus on the task at hand, so what. He’s got three Opens and three Green Jackets to keep him warm, who needs friends.


But then, when Tiger Woods appeared on the scene, it coincided with the demise of Faldo, his era was over. The automaton had to hang up his spikes and in a move few expected, picked up a microphone, and who would have guessed, the prick had a personality after all. Now one of the most respected commentators in the game, Faldo is thought of much more warmly. I remember seeing him finish the Open at St Andrews in 2003, in a creditable 8th place. He managed to roll in a birdie on the last and it got the biggest cheer of anyone all day – the world had warmed to the ice man.


It’s hard to say that Faldo is in a great situation, nothing but a win will suffice for him, both personally and in terms of the press. It’s new territory for a European Captain to have that much pressure on him, so much expectation to succeed. You just know that Faldo is lapping it up though. The most successful Ryder Cup player ever from European shores will love the opportunity to embellish his record. And as a man who won most of his Majors coming from behind, there can be no doubt he will keep his cool even if the Yanks get off to a decent start. He took down Azinger from behind in ‘87 at Muirfield, he’ll be more confident than anyone that he could do it again.

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