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The gunslinger's (almost) back
It could all have been so different. Nick Faldo could have held onto an overnight lead and turned the clock back six years and eleven months and recommenced his winning ways. But it was not to be and every 50-plus year old in the world was devastated. His resurrection faltered as his approach shots on the last day of the Heineken Classic in Melbourne became ragged and wayward compared to what they had been in the third round.

Faldo's three under par 69 in the last round was a creditable performance after the faultless 65 he carded on Saturday, but it was certainly scrambled over the closing holes. One wonders why? The putting touch that has eluded him over recent years was clearly back in his bag and he looked confident again on the greens. It was clear that had he given himself birdie chances over the back nine holes he would certainly have made them. That he did not give himself the same chances that he did on Saturday is the reason why he lost the tournament by one shot to Ernie Els and tied in joint second place with Peter Lonard.

The penetratingly insightful remark made by one TV commentator that time was telling on Faldo, that he was tiring, surpasses in idiocy every time-filling remark that had gone before. For fear of inflicting terminal damage on the box I turned the sound off at that point. Based on this line of reasoning Paul Casey must have been exhausted when he handed in his 74 and Nicolas Fasth must have been knackered when he signed for his 79.

Were it possible to explain the subtle, fickle fates that flutter over a round of golf the game would not be what it is - totally fascinating and utterly unpredictable. There are simply too many variables involved in the regular, routine striking of a golf ball that it is simply amazing that great players can do it with the apparent ease that they do. More striking is the fact that they can go on doing it with such precision over four consecutive days. Clearly there are also the important elements of club selection, getting the line on the green as well as the overall thing of course management.

A good caddie can make an important contribution and it helps to have good balance as well as physical strength. But there is crucially an over-riding mental thing that differentiates that hairs-breadth margin between a great champion and a great player. There may be many factors in that differentiation but the overwhelming one must be self-confidence -the belief in yourself that you can make the shot and hole the putt.

Faldo is certainly a great champion. He has six major championship titles to prove it, as well as a list of lesser titles that would flatter a lesser player. He should have self-confidence in abundance. Everything was right for him; he arrived in Melbourne, a fair city in the best of its summer weather, a place that he likes and where he has many friends. Life has been good to Faldo of late and he was obviously delighted to announce that his third wife was expecting their first baby. Then there was the old MacKenzie course at Melbourne, as near to a true links venue as you can get these days. A course of inspiring subtlety and charm rewarding the wilful player and punishing the wayward.

Faldo was clearly up for it in Melbourne and his steady play over the three days reflected it. But so too was Ernie Els. If a certain tension crept into Faldo's back nine holes in the last round with his understandable angst about winning again, Els had no such baggage to contend with. Els was eight shots behind the leader going into the weekend, admitting to feeling jaded after his sojourn in Singapore but Saturdays round put him in contention and Sundays 65 gave him the title. Els hit the greens and made the putts over the closing holes - Faldo missed the greens and was left scrambling par. Els has won four out of his last five tournaments and was only narrowly beaten in Singapore. Faldo has not won in nearly seven years and although it is hard to believe, even he must have nagging self-doubts about his capacity to win again.

Faldo did not look as if he was merely turning up for a game in Melbourne. Greg Norman too, finishing six under par, looked as if he meant it when he parked the yacht and got out his clubs. The problem that these guys face is familiar to every great gunslinger. Els said it all when he remarked that it gave him special satisfaction to beat a great player like Faldo.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SGU or ScottishGolf.

©    4 - FEBRUARY 2003

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