Last Man Standing

July 20, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Nick Faldo, the TV announcer, played a competitive round Thursday for the first time all year. Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle: they were the men who invented the modern (1980s and ’90s) European tour, a tour that doesn’t even exist anymore. All are right near 50, and they’ve all moved on to other things.

Only one of them can play anymore — Langer, whose body and swing have barely changed in 20 years. Lyle, thought to lack the necessities to be a Ryder Cup captain, seems to wander the world, playing here and there in photosensitive glasses with a swing that often follows one fad or another. Woosnam won as the European Ryder Cup captain last year and, along with his Masters win, he’ll be a legend in whatever pub he’s in for the rest of his days. Seve — the great Seve — announced his retirement from golf this week. The only guy from the fivesome still on the main stage is Faldo. He shot 79 and said, “At least I’ve got other options.”

Faldo, the lead golf analyst for CBS, is the only one of the ‘famous five’ who will have a major second act, for several reasons. He’s the brightest of them, he’s the most ambitious of them and he has the most need. He has three ex-wives, four children and various expensive hobbies, like car collecting. He’s on TV, he’s designing courses, he’s running golf schools. But on Thursday, he was counting strokes on his fingers and didn’t reach the fairway on the 18th hole. As he signed for his score, his old caddie, Fanny Sunesson, was going out with the next next thing, Henrik Stenson.

Faldo and Seve were never close. They weren’t Ryder Cup partners, they seldom challenged each other for major titles, they couldn’t be more different, as players and as men. Faldo was as mechanical as Seve was artistic. “If I played three holes like him, I’d have quit,” Faldo said after his first round at Carnoustie, where Seve made his farewell announcement. But when the Englishman talked about the Spaniard today, it was with admiration.

Referring to Seve’s back problems, Faldo said: “I’m happy for him, I really am. He’s been in agony for years. Twenty years ago in Japan he was writhing in pain.”

Faldo, as he is wont to do, made an observation about Ballesteros that you may have never heard. As Bobby Jones never made the transition from hickory shafts to steel ones, Faldo said Seve never made the transition from wooden woods to metal ones.

“He belongs to the era of the wood made of wood, produced by Slazenger — He could fly it 300 yards in the air when nobody could,” Faldo said. “Swinging that hard took a toll on his back. He told me years ago, ‘I can’t practice anymore.'”

And now Faldo finds himself in the same spot. “My game’s rubbish because I can’t practice.”

In Faldo’s case, it’s not that his body won’t hold up. He looks like he’s still in the gym. (But not on the juice. He says he has never heard of any golfers using steroids, despite Gary Player’s claim to the contrary.) Faldo’s problem is that he has too much going on, and no desire to have a Hale Irwin-like career as a post-50 golfer. Next week, he’ll play in the senior British Open at Muirfield, where he won the first of his three Opens, 20 summers ago. But his main thing now is TV and course design and golf schools and pitching products and … the list is long. TV feeds it all.

On Thursday he was imagining how he would have handled Jean Van de Velde’s triple-bogey on the 72nd hole when the Open was last at Carnoustie, in 1999. Peter Alliss, working with Curtis Strange then for ABC, made it sound as if the Frenchman had lost his mind. Faldo said he would “take a more psychological approach.”

“You don’t really know until you’re there, right?” Faldo said. “The whole business, it’s flying by the seat of your pants. But I’d have tried to describe that he was in a place he’d never been before. When the caddie says, ‘You can win with a six,’ you don’t know how to interpret that. You’ve never imagined that before. So it’s not that he went mad. It was more like he was lost.”

Faldo’s game is not lost, although he putts now with a belly putter and he drives it maybe 250 yards. What he’s done is move on to other things. It’s not easy, in golf as in life. Of his fivesome, he’s the only one who has done it.