Nick Faldo: ‘I would love to be able to play how I used to. It hurts, even now’

Sport

By widespread consensus, Pádraig Harrington has been spared vehement criticism despite captaining Europe to a record 19-9 defeat in the Ryder Cup. Many believe the Irishman has been afforded unduly generous coverage in the aftermath of a Whistling Straits mismatch.

It was not ever thus. Nick Faldo was berated before, during and after captaincy duties in 2008 as Europe were again easily defeated, this time by only 16½ to 11½, at Valhalla. There was undoubtedly overhang from a notoriously tricky relationship between Faldo and the press but the Englishman endured a brutal time.

Wildcard picks, attempts at opening ceremony humour, outfit choices and the infamous sandwich list described by Faldo after his pairing notes were picked up by photographers were all used as ammunition in a pretty nasty scene. That the US, as in 2021, were the stronger team on home soil was widely ignored.

“It’s something I had to delete from my mind,” Faldo says. “I had such a great Ryder Cup [playing] career and I had to delete that experience.

“You don’t hit a shot. You send the guys out. You could do everything right, be the greatest captain, but if the other two guys go out in 29 who is responsible? Motivation isn’t an issue – players never need that from a captain.”

The level of negativity sent Faldo’s way – much of it personal – seriously stung. “Absolutely, of course it did,” he adds. “You do your best. You can’t do anything about it from outside the ropes. As a captain you have to deal with things you shouldn’t have to deal with.

“You have to call four players [who aren’t receiving wildcards]. It’s ridiculous isn’t it, that’s your opening job. Then you get criticised for that, right off the bat. Every day you have to rest four players and you get criticised for that; well, that’s the rules. You get slated without anyone knowing what’s going on inside the four walls of the team room. Everyone assumes …”

With direct reference to Harrington, it is unsurprising Faldo insists Europe simply ran into an immovable object. He can even produce the facts and figures – US 159 under par, Europe 122, US won 35 par fives, Europe 15 – as back-up. “I don’t look any deeper than America really on form and motivated,” says the six-times major champion. “After the embarrassment of Paris, they came out as a strong team. Bottom line, they outplayed us.”

Even the non-selection of Justin Rose, a source of controversy, is met with a Faldo shrug. “One man, unfortunately, isn’t going to change it.”

There is also advice for the European Tour. The one-and-done nature of Ryder Cup captaincy is not something Faldo particularly agrees with. “The nicest thing they could do is let Pádraig debrief, in private, to the Ryder Cup committee because that’s how you learn,” Faldo says. “Successful people know that to learn, you have to fail.

“People say: ‘We failed, he is useless, no point having him again.’ That’s what I felt was the hardest bit. The Tuesday after that’s it, you are done. Yes; I could have done this, could have done that, maybe they should have known about this or that. Situations arose you never dreamt would arise. You don’t need a taskforce like the US had, you just need to make a few notes for the next captain.” Was Faldo afforded any such discussion? “No, of course not.”

Faldo looked on with great admiration as Rory McIlroy rebounded from a troublesome Ryder Cup – during which he was woefully out of sorts for two of the three days – to win in Las Vegas on his next start. McIlroy’s tears at the conclusion of the biennial joust surprised many, but not the UK’s all-time leading major winner.

“He couldn’t flick the switch and turn it on for the team, that’s what really hurt him,” says Faldo. “It’s not about what you have, money or anything else, at that point. I’ve seen guys on the floor; Seve, laughter and tears, different Ryder Cups.”

Faldo remains unsure whether McIlroy, on four, will match or surpass his own major haul. McIlroy’s last such win came in 2014. “He still has tons of time, that’s the good thing,” Faldo says. “I guarantee you he is motivated to do it.

“This game is so fragile. One minute you feel bulletproof then suddenly that trust, confidence, self-belief changes a little and it’s not so easy to get across the line. You just lose a little bit of trust and it multiplies. You have to stand looking at that ball, wondering if you are really trusting what you have got.”

McIlroy’s connection to Faldo stretches way beyond professional pursuits. Eighteen years ago, aged 14, the Northern Irishman played at Brocket Hall as the Faldo Series staged its European grand final. McIlroy is a three-times winner of Faldo’s global development programme.

The Faldo Series returns to the Hertfordshire venue from Monday, marking the 25th anniversary of its launch when Faldo was Masters champion. Back then, altruism from leading golfers was far from fashionable. These excellent tournaments for girls and boys, which are also played in Europe, Asia and the US, do not receive the recognition they deserve. Another overhang, perhaps, from previous Faldo media difficulties; not that he appears remotely troubled.

“I was playing in America with Ray Floyd’s son and asked where he was playing next,” Faldo recalls. “He reeled off all these tournaments and I thought: ‘Wow, we need to create more opportunities.’ I thought a cool prize was to get the kids out of the dreaded British winter so we took the winners to Orlando. Originally it was: ‘Where is the next Nick Faldo coming from?’

“The kids love it and I get a real kick out of that. I go to all the finals. I was with them at Brocket Hall in July when they were all telling me how much they wanted to win to get to the UAE, again to get out of the winter. We have had very young kids travelling the world, great experiences for them.”

Faldo, who suffered as golf equipment underwent revolution, does not bow to popular convention that golf held more appeal in his day. “There was only a dozen of us who were great ball strikers,” he says. “Now there’s only a dozen who are not.

“We got excited when Seve had a go at the 10th green at the Belfry, 238 yards. Now we have guys having a go at 400. The excitement is still there, it’s just a different animal.”

Faldo is no longer exempt for the Open. At 64, the notion of trying to qualify for the 150th Championship at St Andrews next summer does not appeal. Faldo had television contracts as a viable option but his withdrawal from professional golf at a relatively young age – his last main tour win was one year on from that final Augusta triumph – remains curious. “I was a really good golfer half my life ago,” he says. “I would love to be able to play how I used to but it doesn’t last more than three shots. That hurts me, even now.

“I played the other day and was three under after nine. Next time, I was seven over after nine. I’m not interested when I’m clanking shots. You can’t just dust the clubs off and have half a dozen stretches. We travelled hard, played hard. The old golfing batteries were just worn out.” Faldo chose a different path; his ongoing contribution back to the game is worthy of appreciation.