Faldo says time is right for first European champion since 1999

Faldo says time is right for first European champion since 1999

Nick Faldo (with caddie Fanny Sunesson) won his final major championship at the 1996 Masters. It was his third green jacket.
John Iacono/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s been 15 years since Nick Faldo won his third Masters, put his arm around a distraught Greg Norman on the 18th green, and whispered, “I dunno what to say, mate. Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Faldo’s ‘B’ word was a reference to the ‘M’ word (media) that he knew would pillory the Australian with the ‘C’ word (choke). Today, Faldo is a TV commentator, working for CBS Sports and Golf Channel. Like Darth Vader, Faldo crossed over to the dark side, and he appreciates the irony.

“I hope I’m a very nice bastard to the guys on tour,” Faldo said laughing. “I try to give my opinions. I never would have believed I would be back out on tour doing this. I’m the What, How and Why Man. What’s he gonna do? How’s he gonna do it? Why did he screw up?”

Now the question for the Why, How and Why Man is “When?” Namely, when will a European win the Masters? Jose Maria Olazabal was the last European to win, in 1999, and Faldo himself was the last Englishman to win, in 1996.

Three years ago, Faldo criticized the mentally scared British golfers for their failure to follow in his footsteps, casting doubt on their self-belief and guts.

“They are incredibly talented but you can’t survive this game merely on talent,” he said then. “It’s all down to skill, precision, good decision-making, guts, intensity and determination. Our guys have all those qualities. What they’ve got to do next is learn how to hang on. But Tiger has raised the bar.”

Since Faldo made those statements, the world of golf has been tipped on it axis. Woods has slipped to World No. 7, his worst ranking since before he won his first major at the 1997 Masters. Meanwhile six Europeans are in the World’s Top 10 and England’s Lee Westwood recently enjoyed a 17-week stint at No. 1. He was replaced not by an American but by Germany’s Martin Kaymer.

“That’s the first time an Englishman has got to No.1 since somebody else did it many moons ago,” Faldo laughed, referring to his own No. 1 ranking in 2004. “And now Poulter, Casey, Donald, and McDowell and [Rory] McIlroy are right there, too. Seve, Woosie, Langer, Sandy and I were the Big Five back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now there are all these Europeans in a good time in their careers.

“And the majors are coming,” Faldo continued. “McDowell showed how it could be done at Pebble Beach last year. Just that dogged determination to find a way to make another par. And Kaymer did it in the PGA at Whistling Straits. He has that air about him. This year would be pretty amazing if another Englishman or European could win the Masters.”

Faldo can be forgiven for his patriotism. He is after all a Knight of the Realm. But Sir Nick knows only too well that while the Europeans come into Augusta with their strongest squad since Faldo’s heyday, they will face some fierce competition for that green jacket. “Phil Mickelson will be right in there,” Faldo said.

Mickelson ambled into Augusta National’s clubhouse Monday morning sporting baggy jeans hot off the plane (OK, private jet) from Houston, where he announced his return to form with a 63-65 over the weekend to win the Shell Houston Open.

Tiger Woods has yet to make a similar announcement, and Faldo was measured in his assessment of Woods’s chances this year.

“But who knows what Tiger will do? He’s too determined. He’ll find a way,” Faldo said. “I know he is mentally strong but he has hit a lot of indifferent shots lately. When you start standing over shots and you are not 100 percent sure how you are going to strike it, that’s when it starts to scare you.

“After last year, there is no way he can be concentrating and committed on the range 100 percent,” Faldo said. “The phones must have buzzing, all that business with the lawyers; he must have had a few dramas in his head. He has been dented and lost a bit of his power and aura. And everybody has jumped on it. A new generation is breaking through and now once again Europeans are leading the way.”