Twenty-two years later, the 1987 British Open championship at Muirfield is remembered for three things, if it is remembered at all.
One, Nick Faldo won it with a seemingly plodding (but actually remarkable) 18 straight pars in the final round. Two, Paul Azinger, playing in the final pairing as the leader, finished bogey-bogey to lose. “It was my tournament,” he said later, “and I lost it.” Three, the weather in Scotland was miserable — in other words, a typical Open. After one windy, cold and rain-soaked round, diminutive legend Gary Player joked, “I’m so wet, I think I’ve shrunk a bit.”
The ’87 Open is a memorable championship, however, because it was the beginning of the Nick Faldo Era. After blowing a lead in the ’83 Open and being dubbed “El Foldo” by the heartless British press, Faldo painstakingly rebuilt his swing over several years with the help of instructor David Leadbetter. The final product was on display for all to see at Muirfield, where he won despite struggling with his putting. He turned 30 that week and this major title proved to be the first of six — three Opens and three Masters — as he evolved into the most formidable major championship player of the decade pre-Tiger Woods.
Faldo has turned into an almost lovable chatterbox since he entered the broadcast booth, where he’s now the lead analyst for CBS and Golf Channel and his favorite interjection is the charming, “Crumbs.” As a player, he had a Ben Hogan-like intensity that kept the media — and other players — at arm’s length and he only occasionally displayed the witty sense of humor that regularly dresses up his televised commentary.
Now that he’s a TV talking head, and therefore perhaps finally a man of the people, it seemed like a good time to ask him to relive that breakthrough Open victory and share what he remembers from a special week:
I had an inkling about that Open. Lead and I worked on some stuff the week before at Gleneagles and we thought I was swinging my best. It was a bit of a psychology thing that week. I was walking past the tented village Wednesday afternoon and gave a glance up at one of those giant yellow leader boards and saw my name on the top. It just came to me in a flash, I imagined it. And I thought, I can handle that. Prior to midweek, I had another vision that I’d be doing breakfast time TV Monday morning from the Marine Hotel with the trophy sitting in front of me on the table. And that’s exactly what I was doing Monday morning after the Open.
I don’t remember an awful lot about the first two rounds. The weather was miserable. I think I birdied the first three holes and was five under par after 36 holes. I played with Raymond Floyd and Nick Price. Raymond came to me afterward and said, “Wow, I can vouch that you really played well because we played in the worst weather for the first 36, we got the bad part of the draw.”
One of my motivating things was that I turned 30 on Saturday at that Open. I thought, you’ve reached 30, you’ve got to start winning these majors. I’d done my apprenticeship, I’d been close at the odd Open and learned from that, blew up in ’83. I just felt, this is a good time. Another goal I had was that I wanted to be a millionaire before I was 30. That Open took care of that. I still missed the big cash era in golf. In ’83, I won five tournaments and was the first guy in Europe to break 100,000 pounds.
We played in the mist on the weekend, like pea soup. The ball was going nowhere. It was the first time I ever experienced what Tony Jacklin called “The Cocoon.” Now we call it “The Zone.” Honestly, two steps in front of me was my only focal point. The rest was a blur, partly due to the weather and partly because I was completely engrossed. I knew that one good shot could win it for me and one bad shot could cost me the Open. It’s a bit of a knife’s edge, isn’t it?
I played with Azinger on Saturday. I bogeyed the 18th, jammed a chip on the last hole that bumped me out of the final pairing with him Sunday. The crowd really got behind me all weekend. I was up against an American so I wasn’t English anymore, I was British. They’ll always root for a British player over an American. They were the true golf fans at Muirfield, walking the course with their so’westers and their sandwiches and their kit bags. The fans were tremendous.
I could sense the atmosphere Sunday and the buzz of the crowd and I knew what was going on without looking at the leaderboards. I had that ability from my amateur days when there were no boards but you knew you were leading because more crowd came to you or were suddenly looking at you.
Sunday was awfully tough. I hit a 3-iron into a bunker on the par-3 seventh, then hit a really great bunker shot on the eighth, one of those you look at later and say to yourself, wow, that was a hell of a shot, that was really something. I had a scramble from the bunker at 10, too. It was like a blue wall of mist out there. At 16, I had 187 yards to the hole and hit a solid 2-iron that went only 182! Then at 17, the par 5, I had to make a decision whether I could get over the cross bunkers 200 yards away. I decided I couldn’t so I hit a 5-iron short and hit 5-iron for my third onto the green.
The 18th was the first time I ever faced a shot when I was completely on adrenaline. It was a weird, weird feeling. I hit the shot and it all happened like in slow motion — mmmwwrrr-mmmwwrrr-mmmwwrrr. The ball went off into a gray cloud in slow motion. I was in between a 4- and 5-iron so I thought I’d belt the 5-iron. I hit it good but it caught a little upslope and didn’t release so now I’ve got a 40-footer. I hit the first putt a decent length but completely wide, five feet.
I saw Rodger Davis’ name on the leaderboard at four under par and thought, well, you’ve got to hole this putt otherwise you’re not going to win the Open. Azinger must’ve just finished 17 and gone back to five under because I didn’t see any names at six. My only thought was just to try to beat the guy who was already in. I had a five-footer and it was great. Just on my backswing, I thought, Yes! And boomp, it went in. When I put my arms up, I could physically feel the adrenaline coming out of my shoulders.
In a daze, I went off to the scoring cabin. There, I sat between two TVs but I couldn’t watch. Gill, my wife, and Natalie, my daughter, were with me. Natalie was only nine or ten months old and was just starting to stand up. I just sat there with my head in my hands, waiting. I finally heard Peter Alliss say, The next 15 seconds are going to change one of these men’s lives, and I still couldn’t look. Then I heard a kind of a murmur, a pause and a big cheer. That’s when I knew I’d won the Open.
I was in tears. There were tears all around. David Begg, the press officer, was in tears, too, but gave me his handkerchief. That was a good moment, and kind of funny.
Everything else happened in a blur. I was literally led out to the 18th green and given the Claret Jug. I’m sure I must’ve seen Paul but I don’t remember a thing. I was in a complete fog. I had no idea what to say at the ceremony, I was really gone. I was thinking, I’ve done it, now what have I done? It was like crashing a car into a fence. You climb out, you’re not thinking clearly, you’ve no idea what to say.
Eighteen pars, that was a special round of golf. If somebody said you could have 71 before you went out, you’d take it. A par round in the Open used to be pretty significant. We hit long irons in, we hit 2- and 3-irons into the par 3s, we still had 1-irons in our bags. You putted on wet, natural fescue greens that were so undulating, they had bumps within the bumps. I didn’t have a bad putting day, I was just so nervous I couldn’t make putts. I also knew that if I parred any hole, I’d pass 90 percent of the field. My mentality was that par was still good. If anyone thought making 18 pars at Muirfield was easy, well, good luck to them to do it.
It probably helped that once I got away from the course, it was family time. Natalie was a little tot, she was a great release. We had a garden at the hotel, I had to entertain her for a couple of hours every day. Natalie slept on a cot in our room. I was on the tee at 3:15 the last day, it would’ve been nice to sleep in but Natalie would wake up at six every morning. We could hear her. The first words she’d say were guh-da, guh-da, guh-da. That was from us telling her, “Get down,” because she would stand up on the cot. We went out for fish and chips at the harbor in North Berwyck one night. That started a tradition so every time I got to town, I went for fish and chips.
A sports psychologist friend once told me I have a very enviable ability to be totally engrossed in what I do on the golf course. Off the course, that may not be such a good thing. I can be standing looking at something with someone behind me saying, “Nick! Nick! Nick!” And I don’t hear them because I’m focused on something else. I think Ben Hogan had that, Jack Nicklaus had that, a lot of great athletes have it. I was very fortunate to have that ability to concentrate.
The claret jug is what really gets you. You see the winners’ names and the history. It’s a beautiful work of art. As a kid, I’d always put the trophy I’d just won next to my bedside table and try to sleep that night but of course there was no way I could. You don’t sleep the night after you won the Open, either. You replay every moment and every shot. It was quite something.