EXCLUSIVE: The Faldo files – Sir Nick on Rory's mental damage, Lee's big weakness, Luke's brains… and how to tame Augusta
09:30 GMT, 26 March 2012
Ninety minutes in the company of this country's greatest-ever golfer is such an insightful experience it seems extraordinary that nobody seeking to follow in his footsteps and win the Masters next week has availed themselves of the opportunity.
Sir Nick Faldo's three green jackets, not to mention an equal number of Claret Jugs, surely add up to an invaluable resource when you're dealing with the desperately fine line separating England's top players from major championship glory. And yet no orderly queue has been formed towards his door.
'I must say I am a bit surprised,' said Faldo. 'I know I have a reputation of looking through people at times but, are you kidding I'd love to help out. I want to see them join the club as much as anybody.'
Forthright: Sir Nick Faldo in bullish mood before next week's Masters at Augusta National
Perhaps his pointed observations as one of America's leading television analysts has made players wary and put noses out of joint. Or the aloofness that marked him out as a player clings to his reputation.
Whatever the reason, you can't help feeling a stone has been left unturned in the quest for a first UK Masters victory since Faldo himself completed his march for the ages to catch Greg Norman back in 1996.
Now 54, and still with the gait that made him such an intimidating figure in his prime, the Faldo sitting opposite me could hardly be more compelling, mixing judicious observation with constructive criticism.
He can't hide his admiration for Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, while voicing fears for Lee Westwood, advice for Justin Rose, tough love for Ian Poulter and a damning verdict on Paul Casey.
Suits you, Sir: Faldo receives the green
jacket from Ben Crenshaw in 1996
He is brilliant on the plight of Tiger Woods and the fear factor that stalks every footstep at Augusta National, with the brutal demands it inflicts before giving out its prize.
Let's start with McIlroy, the man who will be at the centre of a publicity storm next week. You think he unravelled on the final day of the Masters last year after hooking his tee shot wickedly into the trees at the 10th Not even close, according to Faldo.
'Poor Rory had gone long before then, that tee shot was just a consequence of what happens when your senses have gone beyond the maximum, your brain is on overload, and you can't get through the ball properly,' he said.
'I remember going to the course that day and feeling slightly worried for him, that everything had gone so perfectly to that point, would he be able to cope if a doubt crept into his mind I remember talking to him a few weeks later and, sure enough, he was telling me about his wedge shot to the opening green. He had 128 yards to the hole and halfway down he thought to himself, “Don't go left”. In that moment he had scared himself and the first time it happens to you it feels truly awful. There's so much information running through your head, and you just shut down.
Played like a rookie: Tiger Woods has had to start from the beginning after his meltdown, says Faldo
'At the next hole you're standing on the hill and you're thinking, “I can't go left, I can't go right and I can't go long”. And so it goes on and on, for hour after hour and suddenly you've got this little demon sitting on your shoulder feeding negative thoughts into your head.
'That's why the Masters is the most mentally demanding of all the majors, and you had to feel for him, having to learn with the whole world watching. And what happens at the next major, the U.S Open
'On the first hole he has a wedge shot exactly 128 yards from the hole. I tell you, it showed me a lot about Rory that he hit it to eight feet. That was such a lesson for him and to go on from that and lap the field, that was incredibly impressive.
'So now he goes back to Augusta with all the mental damage cleared away, with all that knowledge stored from last year. Sometimes with Rory his right knee is firing around a bit and he loses his tempo. But, if he's on his game and his rhythm is good, I give him a heck of a shot at winning.'
Faldo couldn't help but chuckle when watching Donald practising recently.
Rory's year McIlroy will be looking to get over his Masters meltdown last year
'Most players on the range will hit to flags, but Luke had his caddie out in the distance, telling him to the yard exactly how far he was hitting his short irons,' he said. 'I used to do that with Fanny Sunesson and Luke's right, that's exactly what you've got to do if you want to be ready for Augusta.
'If you're practising hitting to flags that's no good because you can't tell whether one shot is going three yards further than the next, and that's fatal at the Masters. People don't believe you when they say you've basically got six feet to play with on your iron shots but that's the case most of the time. The flag might be 147 yards away but there will also be a ridge 145.5 yards away, and if you pitch into that you'll spin off the front of the green.
'But you'd expect Luke to have absorbed that. He's a smart man, one who wasn't given anything like the credit he deserved for winning the final event on the US Tour last year to claim the money list. That's one of the hardest things to do, add an event at the last minute and deliver.'
Will he cope with the burden of expectation that comes with being world No 1 Faldo, who knew all about that pressure, gives a dismissive shrug.
Underestimated: Luke Donald has followed in Faldo's footsteps and is the world No 1
'I just worried about what I needed to do, I wasn't interested in the pressure that others might heap on me,' he said. 'I was doing it for me, I looked after myself, and I wanted to win. That's what it is about. I think Luke knows what he is doing. He's organised. He's got his boxes, where he makes time for his sponsors, the media and his practice.
'It's easy to cope with the pressure if you're playing well. He's long enough off the tee and all the stats show us he's dialled in with his irons and his short game is amazing. That's what the Masters is all about. Land it on the number and hole your putts.'
What about the third member of the UK's triumvirate at the top of the rankings, the sentimental favourite Westwood
'How impressive is being out on tour and trimming his waist from 40 inches to 34' said Faldo with a grin. 'I'm only trying to lose an inch and I can't manage it. The great thing about Lee is he is clearly comfortable with his game, he looks relaxed, he's enjoying himself and getting himself fit has done him good.
Question: Lee Westwood's long game is up there with the best but can his chipping hold up at Augusta
'Maybe Darren's [Clarke] victory in The Open last year will be good for him as well. Perhaps he's thinking to himself, “That should have been me knocking off my first major and now I am going to win one through sheer determination”.
'My worry for him at Augusta would always be his chipping action. It doesn't have the flow with his forearms that was the hallmark of Masters champions like Seve, Ollie [Jose-Maria Olazabal] or myself. It's all a little wooden, a little scoopy.
'It is hard to describe to people how difficult chipping is at Augusta. Again, you've got to be so precise. Can he work round that Maybe he will just play so well he will take the pressure off. But can he do it on Sunday afternoon'
Faldo's thoughts on Poulter and what he claims is his tweeting obsession have been documented here before. What about Rose
'He does everything right and has done for a while now,' he said. 'He looks a bit technical at times, but I'd be the last person to criticise him on that score. Has he enough experience of being right in the thick of it on the final day and thinking, “Wow, that's what it feels like” That might be the next step for him.'
What was he playing at Paul Casey dislocated his shoulder while on a snowboarding holiday
Faldo shrugs in frustration when I ask him if there are any benefits for Casey being fresh for the Masters, as he has just returned after dislocating his shoulder snowboarding.
'None whatsoever,' he said. 'How daft can you be I remember the first time I went skiing with the family, this fellow put his thumb out of joint right in front of me and that was enough. I bought myself a big camera and contented myself with taking pics of the family and going on power walks.'
Like everyone else involved in the sport, Faldo can hardly wait for the start of the Masters, and not just for the realistic possibility of a UK victory. He's just completing a month away from tour life, catching up on his golf design work and overseeing the Faldo Junior Series, which now has 7,000 golfers involved in 27 different countries. From McIlroy to the dominant woman Yani Tseng, virtually all the young stars of today have appeared in it.
'I'm in my eighth season on television and glad I'm still heavily involved in golf,' he said. 'Life is pretty darned good and the game is fascinating. There's not just all the UK players. There's Phil Mickelson looking like he might go well at Augusta and what's going to happen with Tiger
'I've always said there are four areas to golf and five years ago he might have been the first man to have them all working 10 out of 10. There's the technical side, the mental side, the physical side, and the family side. Even if one breaks down you can cope if the other three are going well.
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'But he lost his technique, his health, his wife and then, on Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach, we saw him playing a shot that was clearly borne of fear. In other words, he'd lost it all, and so now he was like a rookie, starting over.
'Right now you'd have to say there's no way he'll break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors [Woods has 14], but who knows if he holes a few putts and suddenly starts building up those four areas again'
Is there any chance of seeing Faldo the player again He still has exemptions to play in the Masters and The Open but the former is out due to his commentary work. As for the latter, he won't be able to resist the temptation of playing in The Open at Muirfield next year, scene of two of his Claret Jug successes.
Away from golf, his three grown-up children are all doing well, while a fourth, eight-year-old Emma, lives close to him in Orlando. He has a long-term girlfriend who is also his manager, but plays down any talk of a fourth marriage.
'You don't need to ask a silly question like that,' he says smiling. 'We're just enjoying being together.'
'Officially, no more,' was Faldo's disgruntled verdict at the end of his tortured time as Ryder Cup captain in 2008 but, as this interview shows, he still has plenty to offer.
If the UK's 16-year wait for a Masters champion is extended next week, leaving the leading protagonists wondering where the missing piece lies, perhaps it is worth them bearing in mind that Faldo's door remains open.