Nick Faldo experiences second coming as broadcaster and businessman

June 30, 2009

Nick Faldo is stripping. Off comes his blazer. Then his tie. Then the 6′ 4″ Englishman ditches his shirt, exposing a brawny, hair — flecked chest and a medallion dangling from his neck. It’s the kind of hasty disrobing you’d expect from a sweaty rock star between sets, not a 52-year-old golf analyst in the 18th-hole tower at L.A.’s Riviera Country Club. A team of CBS Sports technicians and production assistants mill about the cramped booth, pretending not to notice the half-naked legend.

CBS has just wrapped its coverage of the 2009 Northern Trust Open, its last tournament until the Masters seven weeks later, but Faldo doesn’t have time for hugs and handshakes. Tucson, and next week’s gig with the Golf Channel, is calling. He slips into a sporty gray zip-up and disappears. As Faldo winds his way down a path next to the sprawling stucco clubhouse — his 22-year-old daughter, Natalie, and her boyfriend in tow — the vultures begin circling. Just a few at first (“Nick!”). Then a dozen (“Nick, over here!). Then it’s a swarm of visors and Sharpies (Mr. Faldo, please!!! Mr. Faldo!!!). Just steps away, Phil Mickelson, the tournament’s winner, bursts out of a clubhouse door. “Phil!” a fan shrieks. But Faldo’s flock is unmoved, swelling larger still as the announcer scribbles madly.

“That’s what I grew up with,” Natalie says minutes later in the welcome calm of a CBS trailer. “He’s still being mobbed. That’s Dad. That’s who he is.”

It’s been 13 years since Faldo last won a major, but thanks to two high-profile TV jobs, a deep portfolio of businesses, and a Ryder Cup captaincy that drew more attention to Faldo than his players, Britain’s most captivating golfer is more captivating than ever — to us Yanks, anyway. “I don’t think there’s any question that in terms of his Q-rating, his stature, and his ability to get a table at any restaurant in America, Nick Faldo has definitely caught up,” says Jim Nantz, Faldo’s CBS partner. “People are starting to get to feel like they know him.” And not just common folk. On the Friday of Riviera week, two nights before the Oscars, Faldo found himself hobnobbing with the cream of Hollywood at an exclusive house party in the Hills. Working the room with the confidence of a Best Actor nominee, the golfer chatted with his countryman Hugh Laurie, laughed it up with his old buddy Michael Douglas, and generally sopped up the scene. “The biggest A-list group I’ve ever been with,” Faldo marvels. “And they were all mingling and happy because there were no photographs being taken, no paparazzi. It was as private as it gets, and I think that’s what A-listers like. They can go and be themselves.”

He thinks that’s what A-listers like? As if Faldo doesn’t know. Since joining the golf analyst ranks in earnest in 2004, Nasty Nick, with his sideburns and skinny ties, has become the Ryan Seacrest of golf: hip, tireless and seemingly everywhere you turn. Banking some 240 hours of airtime annually between CBS and the Golf Channel, Faldo is among the game’s most prolific pundits, a deeply ironic duty that he has performed largely to positive reviews. “It’s funny,” says David Leadbetter, Faldo’s swing coach of 13 years. “Nick was never very comfortable with the press. Now he is the press.”

And so much more. When not dissecting swings and psyches on the PGA Tour, Faldo runs a small empire, which, with his TV income, nets him far more than he ever pocketed as a player. Faldo has his name on courses (20 in 15 countries, and another 20 in the works); wines (three varieties, bottled in South Africa); golf schools (one in England, three in the U.S.); an international network of junior tournaments (4,000 participants and a recent grad named Rory McIlroy); and a fledgling resort management business. There’s also his Rent-a-Nick appearances (he’s all yours for $100,000); corporate alliances (Citigroup, TaylorMade-adidas); magazine columns and book deals (his 2004 autobiography already needs an addendum); and, in 2008, a Ryder Cup captaincy (a full-time job in itself). All while trying to find time for his children (four from two of his three marriages); his fishing rod (his escape); and not lastly his swing (Faldo is tuning up to play this month’s British Open, his 33rd Open start).

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That’s Faldo for you. The man whose idea of “having a blast” once meant spending a weekend in a practice bunker has taken his famously manic drive and rechanneled it. “That’s one of the things that always fascinates me about Nick,” says Kelly Tilghman, Faldo’s partner at the Golf Channel. “I’ll say, ‘Okay, Nick, you have 10 days off coming up. What are you doing with your free time?’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I’m going to Ireland to go fishing, then coming back to the States for a couple days to go to Busch Gardens with my little [daughter] Emma and then I’m going down to Brazil to look at some golf course territory.’ This is Nick Faldo. He’s programmed to achieve.” Even if his critics, it so often seems, would rather see him fail.

On camera, the CBS booth sparkles — a gleaming desk, two blazered announcers and Riviera’s lush 18th hole behind them. Off camera, the glamour fades. Large plastic crates line the walls, clusters of wires hang from monitors like vines, and banana peels mingle with granola bar wrappers. Faldo himself is a bit of smoke-and-mirror act. Minutes before the cameras roll, he looks ready to back up Jim Morrison, not Jim Nantz. He’s in black jeans, sneakers and an untucked shirt, and he’s meandering about the tower fiddling with his collar. “I can’t find me stays!” he cries.

Faldo doesn’t just dress loose (Nantz calls him an “unmade bed”), he acts the part, too. As Nantz watches the final moments of the college basketball game preempting their telecast, Faldo isn’t studying player bios or pin sheets. He’s snapping pictures with his digital camera. Faldo takes the camera everywhere, chronicling his far-flung travels like Kerouac with a Konica. He so fancies his eye that he has been known to offer background suggestions to photographers assigned to shoot him. “I can visualize things,” he says. “I use that in my design work, too. I say, ‘Okay, there’s a golf hole here.’ It’s my vision that sets the theme for the whole course.’ ” And his voice that sets the tone for a telecast.

“All the girls are in pink,” Faldo says to Nantz, who on this cool February day is in a V-neck sweater of that hue. “That’s a bit of a worry.”

“It’s not pink,” Nantz begins.

“Crushed raspberry,” Faldo says, grinning. “Is it cashmere?”

Minutes later the pair is live in front of 4.8 million viewers. Faldo says he regrets not giving Mickelson enough praise for his fine play earlier in the week.

“I thought you were pretty jazzed about it,” Nantz says. “I’ll have to review the tapes.”

Faldo pounces. “Not neeeearly as jazzed as your crushed damson sweater, I have to say.”

If Faldo looks comfortable on camera, it’s not entirely by accident. When Nick was growing up in Welwyn Garden City, a tidy suburb 25 miles north of London, Joyce Faldo didn’t want her only child to be the next Tony Jacklin. “She’d have loved me to be an actor,” Faldo says now, chuckling at the thought. She and her husband George were avid theatergoers, and Joyce longed for young Nick to pursue their passion. She enrolled him in dance and speech classes, and he tagged along on his parents’ frequent trips to the town playhouse.

Ultimately another kind of drama grabbed Faldo — the kind that begins with long, solitary hours on a practice range and ends with green jackets and Claret Jugs. “As an athlete or a sportsman, you’ve got a window of opportunity, so I was quite happy to commit myself,” Faldo says. “It probably goes back to when I was a kid when I started practicing. I loved it, belting golf balls all day. That was me.” At 19, Faldo turned pro. At 20, he played in his first of a record 11 Ryder Cups. At 28, still seeking a major title, he retooled his swing under Leadbetter’s watch. Two tedious years later, in 1987, he bagged the British Open at Muirfield, his first of six major wins.

His glowing résumé aside, Faldo never appeared destined for a career in TV. His cloistered nature hindered him from bonding with players and fans alike and prompted the British commentator Peter Allis to label him “a typical only child.” “Cold” and “smug” were other popular descriptors, a result of Faldo’s frequent inability to find the right words — or any words at all. At the 1991 Ryder Cup, captain Bernard Gallacher paired Faldo with young David Gilford with hopes that Faldo would encourage him. Through 12 agonizing holes and a 7-and-6 defeat, Faldo barely uttered a word to the shell-shocked rookie. A year later, after winning his third British Open, again at Muirfield, Faldo used his acceptance speech to thank the press from “the heart of my bottom.” In 1998, Faldo made headlines when he fired his longtime teacher — by mail. “I had a feeling that the letter was actually written by his manager,” Leadbetter says today. “I could tell by the lingo. It was a bit sort of impersonal.”

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“He was admired without being loved,” Leadbetter continues. “Back in the U.K., Seve [Ballesteros] was probably loved more than Nick was.” Yes, but that’s what made Faldo effective. “Nick could enter a state where he saw what he wanted to see and everything else disappeared,” says Faldo’s psychologist and friend Kjell Enhager. “I totally understand people who say this guy is obnoxious or arrogant. But really he was just deep in focus.”

The press portrayed Faldo as a prickly loner, a perception the golfer resented but felt powerless to dispel. “I found it difficult because you go to the press tent with the absolute best intentions to answer the questions for the guys and then you walk out and they would flip it,” Faldo says. “You’re asked three questions and then it would be, ‘Faldo moans about this.’ And I’d say, ‘No, hang on — you asked me a question and I answered it honestly.’ “

Faldo’s turbulent love life didn’t help his image, either. From 1979 to 2006, he married and divorced three times. The juicy details of those relationships — including second wife Gill’s admission in a 1999 interview that doctors had induced the births of their three children so as not to disrupt Faldo’s schedule — regularly surfaced in the Fleet Street tabs. John Hopkins, the Times of London golf writer, acknowledges that the British media’s coverage of Faldo can be gratuitous. “But he has always chosen to pinpoint and be wounded by the unfair criticism,” Hopkins says. “And he never seemed to accept that it has probably been balanced by all the praise that has been heaped upon him.”

Whatever the case, Faldo couldn’t shake his reputation. So when ABC Sports offered him a job in 2003, the network’s then-golf anchor, Mike Tirico, had cause for concern. “I was hesitant about a guy who did not show much personality,” Tirico recalls. “How is he going to be as the focal point of what we do on TV?” Just fine, thank you. Paired with Paul Azinger, a compelling foil, Faldo quickly earned kudos for his shrewd and funny commentary, and — crikey — did viewers ever love his quirky Britishisms. Faldo even surprised Faldo. “It was so funny when I started,” he says. “I’d be rattling away and a little voice would go, ‘Oh, listen to you, rattling away!’ It was quite a shock to see myself going.”

To those outside of Faldo’s dinner-party circuit, it was a revelation. At the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play, its last year at La Costa Resort and Spa, ABC aired a puff piece on the spa, reported by Faldo. “Massage, cucumbers on his eyes, the whole deal,” Tirico recalls. “I remember watching it on the air and going, ‘This is Nick Faldo?’ ” Years earlier, when Faldo was still competing, CBS announcer Gary McCord had his own incredulous Faldo moment when at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Faldo showed up to caddie for a celebrity shootout donning a rainbow clown wig. “There was something down deep in that soul — funny demons — that wanted to come out,” McCord says. “That was the coming-out party for me.”

Faldo’s blend of star power and spirited commentary proved so irresistible to network executives that when ABC pulled the plug on its golf coverage in 2006, NBC quickly courted Faldo to join Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller. Faldo, sources say, was ready to commit, but he bailed when CBS offered him a seat next to Nantz — and a four-year deal worth a reported $8 million. The “most hated man in British sport,” as a London newspaper had once described Faldo, had ascended to one of the most prestigious posts in American golf.

As a thrilling finish unfolds at Riviera, Nantz and Faldo are rapt, occasionally popping up from their seats to watch the action unfold in real time below. By the time the final group reaches 18, Nantz has shed his pink sweater and Faldo’s sleeves are rolled and his shirttail once again exposed. Fred Couples, a shot off the lead, is in good position after a big drive. But he spoils his chances by blocking his approach shot into some overhanging gum trees. “It’s an amazing game, golf,” Faldo says. “You go 71 holes and you can’t finish it off with one more.”

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Faldo is no Johnny Miller. He’s rarely hypercritical, and his tone is more compassionate than condemning. When he’s disappointed, he draws out his words as if he’s singing them (Oh, nooooooo — you don’t want to hit it over therrrrrre…). Sometimes he just inhales through his teeth. Other times his trademark “crumbs!” says it all. Faldo says he has tried to abide by one guiding principle: speak the truth. “Because if you know it’s bullshit,” Tirico once advised him, “your viewers will know it’s bullshit.” During the final round of the 2005 Buick Invitational, Faldo boldly went where few golf analysts have dared: he knocked Tiger Woods. “A complete fan and a miss,” Faldo said when Woods blocked his approach to 18. Faldo went on to describe Woods’s newly revamped swing as too flat, an observation that drew the ire of Woods but the respect of others. “You want the guy who finds Waldo when no one else can,” Nantz says. “Faldo can find Waldo.”

In typical Faldo fashion, he has also found controversy and criticism. The same week the Brit critiqued Woods, Buick reprimanded Faldo for imitating Bernhard Langer on the air. A week later an ABC producer curbed Faldo when the analyst did his best Shigeki Maruyama. “Sometimes you need to rein him back in,” Tirico says. “But a lot of the best observations Nick makes will be things that just strike him at that moment. He’ll tell you how excited he is. A Faldo ‘Wow!’ is a legitimate ‘Wow!’ ” During a Golf Channel telecast in 2008, Faldo referenced a test by this magazine that concluded a certain TaylorMade ball flew farther under specific test conditions than a certain Nike ball, adding that the Nike ball “fell out of the sky.” It was at best an inappropriate digression, but when paired with the fact that Faldo had just inked an endorsement deal with TaylorMade, it became a Golf Channel PR fiasco. Faldo still doesn’t see what the fuss was about. “When they played it back, I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ ” he says. ” ‘It’s factual. I quoted the magazine and said it wasn’t [my opinion].’ “

That explanation didn’t appease his bosses. “I don’t think it’s a big secret — we weren’t very happy,” says Tom Stathakes, Golf Channel’s senior vice president of programming, production and operations. Stathakes says Faldo doesn’t make him nervous on the air, but he does recognize that with Faldo comes an air of unpredictability. “There’s always a little risk-reward,” Stathakes says. “I think NBC would say the same thing about Johnny Miller, and TNT would say the same about Charles [Barkley], and MSNBC would say the same thing about [Keith] Olbermann. But in no way does the risk outweigh the reward.”

Faldo has never been averse to risk. He scrapped a swing that made him Europe’s top player. He left his first wife for his agent’s secretary and his second wife for a 20-year-old coed. Hell, he even leapt up on stage and played air guitar next to his pal Elton John, or so the story goes. In 2003, Faldo gambled with his brand and burgeoning business interests when he severed ties with the powerhouse agency IMG and hired his own squad of advisers because, Faldo has said, IMG did not pay him enough attention.

Iain Forsyth, a former marketer at Nike, headed the new team, and believed that if Faldo was going to forge his new identity as a designer, mentor and raconteur, he needed to exorcise his old identity as a golfer. That meant quitting tournament golf cold turkey, which was fine by Faldo. “He was getting frustrated on the course due to what he used to be able to do and what his body wasn’t willing and able to do,” says Forsyth, who is still Faldo’s manager.

The TV jobs were a perfect segue, allowing Faldo to keep one foot in golf’s elite ranks and his mug squarely in the public eye, but Forsyth refutes the notion that Faldo’s on-screen persona is some sort of elaborate act designed to improve his marketability. “There wasn’t a conscious effort to change his image, there was a conscious effort for Nick to do something where Nick could be himself,” Forsyth says. “It would be quite a hard thing for Nick to go on air for 80-odd days a year and not be himself.”

Others aren’t so sure, in particular many of Faldo’s contemporaries who can’t reconcile life-of-the-party Faldo with the introvert who made Ben Hogan look like Ben Stiller. “Since Nick’s given up competing, he has realized that in order to make a living he has to be Mr. Nice Guy, which he’s now doing on American TV,” says Gallacher, who played with or captained Faldo on seven Ryder Cup teams and for many years lived next door to him. “When he was winning the Masters, there was a privacy cloak around him. He wouldn’t let people into his world and Americans were curious about what kind of guy he really was. Now they see him on television and he’s like a novelty to them. In Britain and Europe, I think they’re more skeptical. They can see through him and see what he’s trying to do.”

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Faldo acknowledges that he was a different beast between the ropes, but that was then. “For years I’ve lived on defending a perceived reputation because of what you’ve seen on the golf course,” he says. “People assume that’s what I’m like off the golf course. That’s totally wrong.” If the cynics can’t accept that, well, crumbs, Faldo certainly doesn’t need their blessing. “I don’t need somebody else to tell me I’m doing a good job,” he says. “I just walk out the door at 5 o’clock and go, ‘That was a good day, I did all right.’ Sure, it’s nice when the big, big boss says you’re doing a good job — that’s kind of important. But anything else below that is just people’s opinions.” Besides, what matters most these days are Faldo’s opinions. “This is me,” he insists. “I’ve realized I can entertain.”

Whatever TV has done to soften Faldo’s image, the 2008 Ryder Cup proved that he’s still a magnet for conflict. In the run-up to the event, one of Faldo’s two vice-captains quit; his counterpart, Paul Azinger, called him a “prick”; and just about everybody skewered Faldo for leaving Darren Clarke at home. When the teams finally arrived at Valhalla, the British press was foaming at the mouth, primed to maul the European captain for any perceived missteps. He wasted little time obliging. During the opening ceremony, Faldo cracked a series of clunking jokes, leading some writers to question whether he’d winged his speech (“I didn’t,” Faldo says now, clearly irked by the accusation. “I put a lot of thought into it.”) On Sunday, with his team in a three—point hole, he back-loaded his singles lineup, ultimately rendering his best players moot. All in all, the U.K. press generally concluded, Faldo’s captaincy was a catastrophe.

Faldo sees it differently. “We had a great time. Simple as that,” he says now. “It was way more a team effort than anybody realizes.” Indeed, while many observers expected golf’s most highly charged event to revive steely, self-absorbed Faldo, he in fact took a decidedly democratic approach to captaining,. “[Sergio] Garcia and all the guys — they sat with the [pairings] list and said this is how we want to play,” says mental coach Enhager, who sat in on team meetings as an unofficial assistant. “And Nick said, ‘Sure, if that’s the way you want to do it, that’s fine.’ He listened to every player.”

Days after the disappointment of Valhalla, Faldo was back in the booth, calling the Tour Championship for the Golf Channel. “It looked like the Ryder Cup hadn’t happened, other than that he was incredibly fatigued,” Tilghman recalls. It’s not that Faldo didn’t care, but he had no regrets. “You can look back and go, ‘I wish this and that,’ ” Faldo says. “But it was a bit like TV. When I walked out the door I knew I had done a good job.”

Faldo balks at the assertion that he’s stretching himself too thin, but he does admit to relishing the notion of a month-long break at his Orlando home — sort of. “And then I think, ‘What would I do?’ ” he says. “Would I do yoga lessons every morning? Would I have someone come teach me to sculpt? Or someone teach me to play drums?” Or perhaps he could spend the time beating balls. “I’m practicing one percent of what I used to,” Faldo says, which is why he says it’s highly unlikely he’ll pull a Greg Norman at Turnberry this month.

Of course, like Norman, Faldo doesn’t need another win. His legacy, as golf fans often remind him, is already written. At the celeb bash in L.A., a wide-eyed guest approached Faldo and told him a story about the 1987 Open. “I got on a bus to Muirfield in the pouring rain,” the guest began. “I watched you play, and I walked every single hole in that weather. I was right there when you won.

“And that,” the man said earnestly, “was the greatest day of my life.”

Faldo loves hearing Faldo stories, particularly as he grows older and appreciates the game from a new perspective — high above it. “I see now all the little bits that you have to put together to win on a Sunday afternoon at a major,” he says. “I’m fortunate I had that ability, that I developed some, that I was born with some.

“Though I don’t know if you can create determination,” he adds. “I’m sure you’re born with the doggedness that makes you keep doing things. And I’m very grateful I had that.”

With that, Faldo’s time is up. Diet Coke in hand, he clambers out of the CBS trailer into a dusty parking lot. The sun is setting on Riviera, and the fans have scurried home to catch the opening act of the Oscars. But Faldo must keep moving. He climbs into a black SUV with tinted windows and the door thumps closed behind him. Tucson is calling.

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