Up Close & Personal

Sir Nick Faldo’s love affair with the game’s oldest and greatest championship goes all the way back to 1973, when his father, George, took him on a road-trip to Royal Troon, where the imposing figure of Tom Weiskopf caught the imagination of the then 16 year-old superstar in waiting. Here, Britain’s six-time major champion compiles a personal Top-10 of the memories that shine brightest in his relationship with golf's ultimate prize.

Interview by Richard Simmons

Sir Nick Faldo

" I played in my first ever Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1975 - scene of the unforgettable Watson/Newton duel over the famed Angus links, one of the most brutal venues on the Open rota. Watson would win the first of his five Open titles in that thrilling tussle, while my own involvement with golf’s oldest and greatest championships has given me a lifetime of memories – and it all started with a 1973 road-trip in a VW Beetle…. "

1973, Royal Troon & the mighty Weiskopf

My very first Open and one I will never forget: a road-trip in dad’s VW Beetle and it must have taken us the best part of a day to travel from Welwyn, in Hertfordshire, to the town of Ayr and the links at Troon. I can remember it like it was yesterday – the car crammed full of camping gear and that excited feeling of hitting the road, just dad and me. We used to go camping quite a lot in those days but this was extra special. Our first Open. A proper boys’ tour.

For me, standing behind the players on the range and watching the different swings and styles was fascinating. During that week I stood there for hours, taking it all in, and I would try to mimic their idiosyncrasies with practice swings of my own while studying their every move. If I hadn’t done that and been so inspired, who knows what would have happened?
Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tony Jacklin who’d have guessed that I would one day play alongside those heroes let alone experience Ryder Cups with the most passionate and genuine of European captains. I even saw – or rather heard – Gene Sarazen’s hole-in-one at the ‘Postage Stamp’ 8th hole during the first round albeit from a distance. Tom Weiskopf seemed a giant of the game, the way he carried himself, the poise and the grace with which he played. Tom is 6’ 3”, and so maybe I saw a little of myself in his style – his was the most elegant of golf swings but at the same time incredibly powerful and he hit towering iron shots that rained down on the pin. He won that Open – his only major title – going wire-to-wire to finish on 12-under-par – matching the then-existing Open record set by Palmer in 1962, also at Troon.

Some debut

Tom Watson won the first of his five Open titles on his first appearance after a playoff with the Australian Jack Newton in 1975; (inset left): The author’s finest four round display came at St Andrews in 1990

1975, Tom Watson’s ‘bottle’ at Carnoustie

I was in the stands by the 18th green when Tom Watson holed the putt to clinch his place in a playoff with Jack Newton that was pretty cool. This was Watson’s first Open and was there to see him hole the most important putt in his life at that point, displaying the sort of ‘bottle’ you have to have in order to become a winner. After relatively benign conditions over the opening couple of days the wind kicked up during the final round (in those days played on a Saturday) and the scores went up. Watson faced a 20-foot putt for birdie on the 18th green to force a playoff with the Australian. I stood up and roared the ball home in chorus with the hundreds of fans around me. What a putt to make.

Earlier that week I made a point of watching Tom on the range and stood mesmerised as he hit these 1-iron shots off the deck, the purest of strikes, and the noise was just incredible. I watched and let it all soak in. You learnt the routine, the tempo, the whole thing. I’ve always stressed to young players the importance of making an effort to go and study the best players in the game because you learn so much. I spent a lot of time watching Lee Trevino, too. And there’s a story behind that. I had played in the British Amateur earlier that season and one of the great characters in those days, John Davis – or ‘Badger’ as he was known – told me that if I qualified for the Open he would arrange for me to play a practice round with Lee Trevino. “How exactly are you going to fix that?” I asked him. “Because I’m the guv’nor,” he replied. Sadly I didn’t qualify but, true to his word, Badger fixed it for me to walk with Trevino’s group in practice and I followed him and his caddie, the legendary Willie Aitchison, over the first three rounds. It took Trevino two-and-a-half rounds to miss a green! At the long par three 16th, on consecutive days, he hit two of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen, a driver both times to within just a few feet of the pin. He even showed me his putting stroke to master the roll with the ‘big’ ball, to lock the left wrist – the anti-left wrist putting stroke.

1976, a debut for Seve...and Yours Truly

Golf fans of my era remember 1976 for the simple reason that Lancashire witnessed the arrival of Severiano Ballesteros, the swashbuckling 19-year-old Spaniard who partied in Blackpool all week and nearly walked off with the Claret Jug at his first attempt. There was just an incredible buzz about the Championship – especially for me, as this was also my debut appearance. It was also hot the long hot summer of 1976. The whole experience of qualifying and then playing all four days at Royal Birkdale was monumental in my career. I felt I had made it onto the world stage and after that taste I knew I was going to do whatever it took to stay there. The course was hard and dusty that week and Seve nearly set it on fire over the opening three rounds, leading by two shots over Johnny Miller after 54 holes. Sunday brought him back to earth with a bump, seven over par after 12 holes but a rallying finish with three birdies and an eagle over the closing stretch saw him tie Nicklaus for second place.

Ultimately, this was to be the great Johnny Miller’s one and only Open victory – a man I always admired greatly as a player and every bit as much as a commentator. But the shot we all remember, of course, is Seve’s brilliantly creative bump-and-run to save par at the 72nd – and a smile that illuminated Southport. As an aside to this, when the Open returned to Royal Birkdale in 1983, I started out my first round 6-6, double bogey, double-bogey, and shot 68. To this day the greatest 68 I’ve ever shot in my life! Tom Watson won that year, proving yet again that pedigree is required around this magnificent but unrelenting course. I was in contention going into the last nine holes on Sunday and blew up – my swing just deserted me over the closing holes and I left the course determined to do something about it. It’s all a learning curve. Within three months I dedicated myself to a swing build under the eye of David Leadbetter…and the rest, as they say...

Crowning glory

Jack Nicklaus won the last of his three Open titles at St Andrews in 1978 while the then British Amateur champion, a certain Peter McEvoy, finished low amateur; Faldo’s 72-hole scoring record of 262, set around the Old Course in 1990, was beaten by Tiger Woods during his electric summer in 2000

1978, Jack’s victory lap at the Home of Golf

It’s impossible to compile a Top-10 list of anything significant without including Jack Nicklaus and I’m going to single out the 1978 Open as being the one that, for me, tells you all you need to know about Jack and his love affair with the game’s oldest championship. Yes, I know, the 1970 Open is the one that gets all the attention for Doug Sanders’ calamity on the 72nd green, but this Championship – Jack’s third and final Open victory – saw the Golden Bear in the prime of his life at 38 years old. For all you statisticians out there, with this win he completed his third career Grand Slam. As for Yours Truly, the 1978 Open was probably the most significant tournament of my career to that point. I finished four shots back and I left the final green convinced that one day I would win the Open. I can’t describe the feeling but I had this incredible belief in my ability. That was huge at 21 years old.

Sure, it took me 9 years to achieve it but I believed it, which was the key!

1988, Seve in full flight at Lytham

Winning my first Open in 1987 was obviously life changing. A year later, at Lytham, and I found myself in the midst of a three-way battle with Nick Price and Seve, in the first ever Monday finish, a last group tee-time gunning for the title. The Lancashire links has always been a happy hunting ground for me – in 1975 I won the English Amateur there and in ’77 it was the stage for the first of my 11 Ryder Cup appearances. The course always suited my eye and the turf is superb, a true and fair test of golf. I actually thought I made a decent defence of my title but Seve’s 65 was sublime. He was unbeatable that day. Early on it was clear that he was in the mood he just had that look in his eye and the putter was on fire. Anyone lucky enough to have seen that last round witnessed one of the game’s truly great artists produce probably the round of his life. In the scorers tent afterwards I shook his hand and said, ‘Seve, I have to tell you that was the best round of golf I have ever seen.’ It really was exhibition stuff. After three-putting the par-five 7th hole – where both Seve and Nickie made threes from short range – I was resigned to the role of spectator. To be honest it was a privilege to have been in that three-ball with him; to experience Seve in full flight at the peak of his magical powers is the way I’ll always remember him.

1990, the week it all ‘clicked at St Andrews

The 1990 season was a special one for me – everything just seemed to ‘click’ and I could easily have claimed the first three majors of the year. As it was I had to settle for two of them – defending my title to win the 1990 Masters and enjoying the week of my life at St Andrews to win a second Open Championship. 
[An extra ounce on my putt on the final green at Medinah a month previously would have seen me in a playoff for the US Open alongside Hale Irwin and Mike Donald, but it wasn’t to be.]
Looking back at the outfits on display that summer reminds me that this was the height of the ‘Geometric George’ logo on my favourite Pringle cardigans and there was a symmetry to my swing that had me playing on auto-pilot. I felt totally in control of the ball – I think I found one bunker all week and didn’t have a single three-putt. I notched up 20 birdies and an eagle to set the record total and it felt very special to be the first player around the Old Course to reach 18 under par – I think I recorded just eight 5’s all week – the rest were twos, threes and fours. To do this at the Home of Golf, to win at St Andrews is every golfer’s dream…

2000, Tiger steals my thunder!

Given his form at Pebble Beach earlier that summer, winning the U.S. Open by a staggering 12-shot margin, there was every chance that the game’s undisputed No.1 would threaten my 72-hole scoring record at St Andrews – and, sure enough, Tiger tore the place apart. Not once in four days did he find a bunker and when the dust had settled, with rounds of 67-66-67-69, Tiger eclipsed my winning record by a stroke to claim his career Grand Slam of all four of golf’s majors (joinng golf’s most select club of players to have achieved this – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Gary Player being the others). Tiger was just 24. The process of sitting down to recall my favourite Open moments actually brought home to me the reality that the Tiger era is now consigned to history. That Open at St Andrews in 2000 was 17 years ago! Seventeen years…that is a different era to here and now. I would love to see him come back and who knows – you really wouldn’t put anything past him. But I think even the most loyal of Tiger fans now has to accept that his time has been and gone, which is sad for all of golf.

Tiger Woods after winning the 2006 Open Championship