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"This for the Open"

- where did those 30-odd years go?

Sir Nick Faldo relives the emotion and excitement of his first major championship victory – the first of three Open titles – at Muirfield in 1987

By Sir Nick Faldo

When I look back on my career there is absolutely no doubt about it – to win your first major championship, the final round at Muirfield in 1987 has to rate as one of my greatest 18-hole performances under the gun. It sounds boring, doesn’t it? Eighteen pars on a Sunday at Muirfield. But that was very, very special. That and my last-day 67 at Augusta to win my third Masters title in 1996, I’d say those are the two best and most significant rounds of my career. The book-ends to my six major titles – with the Open victory on that dank day at Muirfield just edging it.

Just look at what it meant to Sergio [Garcia] to win his first major at Augusta last year in what was it – his 74th major appearance? That’s what winning a major means to a player. It’s hard to explain the intensity of it all when you’re trying to get over that line for the first time in your career. It is like nothing you’ve ever witnessed before. It’s 10 times greater than anything you experience on a regular Sunday. As much as you try to stay calm and keep the lid on it all, the situation you have dreamed about for so long cranks up the emotion, your thinking, your reaction times, everything. You have all this going on and if you sense something special is happening – as I certainly did at Muirfield – you experience the belief that you can do it.

After the build up, the well-documented swing change with David [Leadbetter], turning 30 that weekend in July, for me it was just a great time to win the Open. That was sheer elation and emotion at winning my first major. Relief. Utter relief after all the work you’ve put in.

As we all know fortune plays a big part in this game and a player’s fate at the Open is at the mercy of the elements. I certainly had the worst of the draw, weather-wise in ’87. I played with Nick Price and Ray Floyd over the first two days and I remember Ray coming up to me after the first 36 holes and saying “You can be proud of that golf, we had the worst of it out there.” It was just pea soup with a decent breeze. I was all wrapped up, I remember, dark corduroy trousers, blue cashmere roll-neck and my favourite cashmere sweater. I think I wore the same cords the last two days – not because I’m superstitious, they were the warmest strides I had with me.

Mentally, I was in the ‘zone’ all week – wrapped up in my own ‘cocoon’ as Tony Jacklin liked to describe it. On that Sunday I was totally engrossed in my own little world, emotionally, just doing my own thing and getting so deep in my own concentration that I was more or less oblivious to what was going on around me. As I was walking I focused on just a couple of steps in front of me. I’d get to the ball, and playing the next shot was all that matters. Rinse and repeat. Hit it, walk after it, go through the same routine all over again.

The memories of stroking home that final putt will stay with me forever. “This to win the Open.” How many thousands of times had I said that to myself as a kid on the putting green at Welwyn Garden City? I blocked the first putt from the front left corner of the green, raced it five-feet by. I looked up at the leaderboard and saw Rodger Davis was in at four under. I thought to myself, ‘Well you can’t miss this otherwise you ‘aint going to win.’. The nicest thing was, as I got over it and took the thing back, a little voice in my head just went “Yeah!”. And that was that, a life changed forever.

The thing that did keep running through my head was ‘When am I going to make a birdie!’ I remember having trouble releasing the putter freely – that was the nerves – and I kept leaving good putts short of the hole. But I holed all of the short ones, and when you’re grinding out a score, that’s what matters.

Back in the day we used to talk about there being a ‘window’ of opportunity for a tour player, from the age of 25-35 as being the prime of your life as a golfer. That’s when you had to make it, financially. That has been extended now – players are so much fitter today and of course the technology helps. But believe me, back in those days you had to win to make a real difference to your life. If you were a journeyman you didn’t drive around in a fancy car, you travelled on a budget and it could be a pretty ordinary life. How times have changed. These days a good journeyman can win several million dollars a year without winning a tournament. For me, winning is and always has been the difference. You have to dig deep, to want to win trophies, to be a winner.

Written with Richard Simmons, interview supplied courtesy Atlantic Golf & LifeStyle