Faldo snarled. Faldo sobbed. Faldo lashed out. Faldo left in a huff. Faldo was angry, caustic, mistrustful, sarcastic, flippant, careless, petulant and rude.
Don’t you love the British newspapers? On the eve of the Ryder Cup they turned every press conference with European captain Nick Faldo into a scene from The Dark Knight, with you-know-who as the Joker. Faldo was “an accident waiting to happen” (The Guardian), “a potentially huge embarrassment” (The Sun) and “Captain Cock-Up” (The Mirror). Faldo, fumed a writer for The Mirror, was a guy “whose mind often seems so warped with self-regard and disdain for others that he makes you wince when he speaks.”
And that’s what they thought of their man before he lost the Ryder Cup.
I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t entirely Faldo’s fault. A pinch of blame has to go to reigning British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who scored a mere half point for Europe. A modicum of accountability must be assigned to Sergio Garcia, who came to Kentucky with the best winning percentage in Ryder Cup history and left with no wins, two halves and less sparkle than Anthony Kim’s belt buckle. A smidgen of scorn should be reserved for Lee Westwood, who after scoring 81/2 points in the two previous Ryder Cups, contributed only one point at Valhalla and sulked when he was asked to sit out the Saturday morning foursomes.
To tell the truth, I didn’t actually see Westwood sulk. But I never saw Faldo snarl, sob, lash out or leave in a huff, either. From my seat in the peanut gallery, Europe’s captain came across as composed, amiable, respectful, enthusiastic, wry, supportive, gallant and, yes, flippant. (I like flippant.) I did see Faldo choke up with emotion last Thursday when he tried to express his admiration for Muhammad Ali, whom he had just met for a photo op. But Faldo did not sob. His eyes got moist, that’s all.
It is possible, I suppose, that my British colleagues know Faldo better than I do. They were closer to the Englishman in his playing days, when he was so busy winning major championships (six) and setting the alltime Ryder Cup points record (25) that he had little time or patience for his wives (three) or tabloid journalists (hundreds). The scribes remember, as if it were yesterday, how Faldo celebrated his victory at the 1992 British Open by thanking the press “from the heart of my bottom.”
That would explain the fury in Euroland when Faldo snubbed the popular Darren Clarke and the not so popular but effective Colin Montgomerie — heroes of the 2006 Ryder Cup — to waste a captain’s pick on spiky-haired Ian Poulter. (Faldo’s defense: “He’s 23rd in the world, and he just holed a putt to finish second in the Open Championship.”) It would also explain the howls of disbelief on Fleet Street on Friday when Faldo turned in a Day 2 foursomes lineup that did not include the previously unstoppable team of Garcia and Westwood. (Faldo’s defense: “The age of playing all five matches is over.”) Those two bonehead decisions alone cost the Europeans I don’t know how many points.
I don’t know how many because Poulter, wounded by the insults, played like a god for Europe and scored a match-high four points. As for the pairings debacle, Faldo’s players muddied the water on Saturday by pointing out that a tired and listless Garcia had asked to sit out a match. “So Lee had lost his partner,” Faldo subsequently snarled — er, stated — “and I didn’t want to throw him out there with a new partner that he hadn’t practiced with.” That strikes me as a reasonable explanation, but then I haven’t spent as much time with Faldo as the British scribe who accused him of “ironclad solipsism” has.
Actually, I saw nothing at Valhalla to suggest that Faldo was dictatorial, overwrought, unhinged or any of 20 other press characterizations. At the beginning of the week he assembled his team on the 1st tee for a visualization exercise designed to overcome first-drive jitters. He then sent them out to practice as threesomes instead of the usual foursomes, saying “when you’re doing a lot of chipping or putting around the green, four is a crowd.” In another innovative move Faldo invited several potential Ryder Cuppers to follow him around, including two-time European tour winner Martin Kaymer. “You can’t guess what this week is about, even in your wildest dreams,” Faldo explained. “So this was one of my ideas, to bring some players along and for them to feel it.”
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell seemed to buy Faldo’s act. “I think he’s very calm, cool and calculated,” said the Ryder Cup rookie, who sank a passel of clutch putts and scored 2 1/2 points for the losers. “He’s really involving everyone — caddies, wives, partners, the whole team.” McDowell’s sentiments were echoed by third-time Ryder Cupper Paul Casey, who said, “I’ve seen a side of Nick I’ve never seen before. He’s pouring it out, all the stuff he’s stored up during the years. I think he’s been a great captain.”
I thought so too, but apparently I was wrong. A great captain would have thrown Garcia under the bus for asking to sit out, as U.S. captain Hal Sutton did four years ago to a naive Chris Riley. A great captain would have blamed his team’s defeat on the boorish behavior of the opposing team’s fans, as European captain Mark James did nine years ago at Brookline. A great captain, watching his team fall to the Americans on Sunday, would have snarled, sobbed, lashed out and then left in a huff. Faldo merely raced around Valhalla in a golf cart, handing out encouragement to his players and praise for the U.S. team and their captain, Paul Azinger. “Twenty-four guys have given their hearts and souls in this event, and Europe has come up short,” Faldo said on Sunday evening. “But the golf was fantastic.”
He was thinking, perhaps, of Robert Karlsson, whose two points — a win and two halves in four matches — grievously understated his brilliant play. In the Saturday four-ball the tall (6′ 5″) Swede birdied seven of the last 10 holes alongside compatriot Henrik Stenson to wrest a half point from the hot combo of Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson. Karlsson then blistered the previously formidable Justin Leonard on Sunday by the score of 5 and 3. Afterward, Karlsson threw a bouquet to Faldo, saying, “At the end of the day, it’s very easy to criticize, but he’s been an excellent captain.”
A losing captain, the Faldo haters pointed out with relish. One bomb thrower among the journos ended the European team’s final press conference on a sour note by telling Faldo that “under your leadership the European team has changed from a winning team to a losing team. How hard is that for you to take?” Jose Maria Olazabal, Faldo’s vice captain, shook his head in anger. “That question,” he said, “doesn’t deserve an answer.”
But one — two, actually — had already been provided. “We hold the golf clubs, and we hit the shots,” said Westwood, who pointed out that the foursomes session he and Garcia had missed was the only one that Europe won. “So Nick was right to do that.” Then Garcia, not known for being a gracious loser, put it even more bluntly: “If I would have played better and won my match, maybe we would be talking and writing a different story. It had nothing to do with Nick.”
Faldo, grateful for the show of support, refused to snarl.