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Nasty to nice

Photo: Fred Vuich/SI

Nick Faldo chats with Kelly Tilghman and on CBS.

Nick Faldo was a six-time major winner but not popular. Nasty Nick, they called him, or worse, Nick the (rhymes with Brick).

A plinker in the Funk mold, Faldo quit winning when Tiger and friends started knocking three-irons past his drives. He dumped his longtime swing guru, David Leadbetter. Dumped his second wife for a college golfer who pummeled his Porsche with a nine-iron when he dumped her too. Heh-heh, chortled Brit writers, serves the bugger right. He got the last laugh, morphing into the best golf talker since Johnny Miller.

Says David Feherty, "It's a miracle! He fit right in with us." The two became colleagues last October when Faldo, who had spent three years with ABC, was signed as CBS's lead analyst, replacing Lanny Wadkins. Faldo and Feherty turned pro on the same day in 1976 and played the Euro tour for decades, but they weren't friends.

"I'm not sure Nick had a friend on tour," says Feherty. "I mean, I knew the guy for 30 years and never knew he was funny."

Faldo: "As a player I was head down, blinkers on. Totally focused inside my cocoon. I wish I could have jumped in and out of that cocoon, but I couldn't. Not without losing focus on my golf."

The new Faldo — Nice Nick — was in a pickle last summer as he readied to play the British Open. During the '05 Buick Invitational he had critiqued a lousy shot by Tiger Woods ("a complete fan and miss"), who then froze him out. They hadn't spoken in 18 months when they were paired for the first two rounds. Tiger said he'd be "surprised" if they spoke.

But Faldo had a plan.

"There were bookies offering odds of 25 to 1 that we'd come to blows that day! So I said, 'Tiger, I've got a deal for you.'"

Woods gave him the glacier gaze.

"They've got it 25 to 1 that we'll fight," Faldo said. "Let's take the bet and throw a few punches."

Woods nodded. "I'll put $2 million on it," he said.

"So you win $50 million? O.K., I'll only take 20 percent."

Feud over.

Woods went on to win his third British Open, while Nick got two rounds' worth of on-course insight to use in the booth.

"The bottom line is that I need information from Tiger," says Faldo, who used to grouse about announcers who don't bother to work the locker room and the range. (Listening, Johnny?) "What's he thinking? What's he doing with his swing? That's what viewers want to know. And as long as he and I are talking, I can find out."

Faldo likes to wander the range, chatting up players he would have ignored in the old days.

"I look for little scoops — tidbits from a player's life, or what he's trying with his swing," he says.

Disdaining the usual stats ("Anyone can quote numbers from ShotLink"), Faldo hunts for more revealing facts: Who prefers the front or back nine; who tends to butcher a particular hole. And he's not afraid to air an opinion.

• "I liked playing practice rounds alone. I was working while other guys were mucking around, playing for money."

• "My swing was all tempo. The new golf swing is about explosiveness from shoulder and hip rotation. It's almost a martial-arts move."

• "Drug testing scares me. It's tough to speak out against it because it looks as if you favor drugs, but what about false positives? What if you use the wrong nasal spray? One positive test and you're done. Ruined. If golf is to have a drug-testing plan, it better be a damn good one. Foolproof."

• "Johnny Miller's my favorite announcer. Peter Alliss's golfing knowledge isn't up there with Johnny's. Peter is king of the talkers, though. He could go on about a ham sandwich for minutes with no repetition, no hesitations — the smoothest ham-sandwich monologue you ever heard."

So far, so good. Faldo is infinitely better than Wadkins, and he passed two crucial tests this spring: He stayed off Tiger's hit list and survived his first Masters.

After verbally tiptoeing through the azaleas at Augusta, saying nothing too irreverent, he enters May as golf's leading voice. And now there's a backlash: Bloggers have called him "flippant, arrogant. . . . Listening to Faldo without Azinger is like drinking beer with no alcohol."

Through it all, Nick the Work Ethic does the broadcaster's version of hitting 1,500 practice balls a day. He walks the range, quizzes golfers, takes notes and scribbles quips, going about his new job the only way he knows how. Hard.

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