ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND, JULY 23 -- With the other major players fallen into career lulls, an Englishman with a name from a detective movie, Nick Faldo, and a woman for a caddie, "good old Fanny" he calls her, has become the greatest golfer in the world. Maybe Faldo lulled them into it, with his bland good looks, faultless swing and a way of making victories seem commonplace.
Faldo's victory in the British Open on Sunday was merely his latest and most convincing major championship and he now possesses four of the game's most prestigious trophies at the age of 33, with no sign of contentment. What may have set his title on the par-72 Old Course of St. Andrews apart from his others was a sense of coming into his own. A player who crept into pre-eminence, he has now burst into dominance.
For the first time, Faldo did not merely collect a tournament someone else let fall by the wayside, he reached out and seized this one by five strokes with a record-breaking total of 18 under par. With that, observers had to assess the scope of his performance since 1987. In the last 14 majors, which consist of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, Faldo finished among the top four eight times, and was a total of 53 under par. It begs for comparison to past and present multiple champions, particularly in light of his single-minded ambition for more.
"I go at them as hard as I can," he said earlier in the week. "They are the most important thing in my career at the moment, the ones I channel my thoughts to. I thrive on the majors."
Faldo won the 1987 British by making 18 straight pars, the '88 Masters when Scott Hoch missed a 36-inch putt in a playoff, and this year's Masters when Raymond Floyd hit his ball in a creek in a playoff. But at St. Andrews, Faldo shot Greg Norman out of it on Saturday and then stood up under the pressure of his first large lead in a major on Sunday. PGA champion Payne Stewart faltered just as he had made it a two-stroke tournament through 12 holes.
Stewart and Norman are not the only big name players Faldo suddenly has overshadowed. He now has twice as many majors as two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and countryman Sandy Lyle. He is one shy of Seve Ballesteros of Spain, equal with Floyd, and halfway to Tom Watson's eight.
Moreover, in the upcoming PGA, Faldo can become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to capture three majors in a season. His two firsts this year are coupled with a third place in the U.S. Open, barely missing a putt on the 18th hole at Medinah that would have put him in a playoff. All this raises the tantalizing possibility that he might have been one stroke shy of a Grand Slam sweep. "We'll see at the PGA if I have any regrets," he said. That is pure fantasy of course, but the fact is that such a presence hasn't been felt in the majors since Jack Nicklaus in the 1970s.
Faldo is not unaware of the comparisons to other multiple champions. He has actively tried to emulate them, a student of attitudes. He remembers attending his first open in 1973, a 16-year-old who wore pajamas under his clothes to keep out the damp cold while he studied Tom Weiskopf on the practice tee. "He will win," Faldo told his father, and was right. He quotes Nicklaus and Gary Player on how to react in the heat of a final round. Player suggests visualizing his name at the top of the leader board, a trick Faldo also uses.
"It's all part of the imagery," he said. "You have to do that, to see yourself doing things, and your body tells you that you are happy and not scared of the situation and can cope with it."
Faldo's game bears more than a passing resemblance to Hogan. Like Hogan, he completely rebuilt his swing, taking in two years of painstaking work with teaching pro David Leadbetter. He has stylishness, incisive iron play and an unshakable concentration.
Faldo did not have those attributes in 1984 when he shot a 76 in the third round of the Open at St. Andrews to fall out of contention. It was then that he decided to rebuild, willing to start from scratch with Leadbetter if it meant he could contend in majors.
"I had to realize to myself that I was not in control of my golf game," Faldo said. "It might look good but it was not 100 percent and I was not sure where it was going to go . . . I thought maybe I had to work hard on my game and change some things. If there is any small detail he feels I should work on, I will work on it to get everything right."
Faldo's laborious approach has not always earned him respect. He has been labeled remote and cold by the British press and also something of a social climber with an extravagant house in Ascot. In truth he has an easy smile and few pretentions.
He is not particularly well-educated. His only college experience is a brief two months spent at the University of Houston on a golf scholarship. But with each victory he has become a little more outgoing and self assured.
"I have to say I am a different person from the one I was portrayed as," he said.
The presence of caddie Fanny Sunesson has made Faldo looser on the course and given his persona an interesting quirk. On the 18th green Sunday he led a cheer for her among the crowd. She chatters through his rounds describing her house or her new dog all the while providing him with yardage information and lining up his putts.
"She's a good, bubbly character," he said. "She takes my mind off it when I'm nervous. She's also keen to do a good job. She doesn't want to make a mistake. That's the key. We make very few mistakes."
The Open stressed the disarray of the other leading players and it had some large implications for the Americans. The United States sent one of its strongest contingents, 51 PGA Tour members, but only nine of them finished in the top 25. Americans clearly must re-emphasize the Open if they are to be more competitive, many of them arriving ill-prepared and with a somewhat condescending attitude.
Faldo laid his claim from start to finish with rounds of 67-65-67-71. The last few holes were a celebratory walk.
"I can't say one is better than the others," he said "They all mean a great deal. But this one is the freshest."