WINTER PARK, Fla. – Nick Faldo pulls the blade from a retired golf bag outside his home office and wraps his oversized mitts around the handle of the TaylorMade TPA XVIII. He rehearses his stroke on his hallway carpet, lifts his head and his face lights up. “Still feels pretty good,” Faldo said.
It never felt better than the day Faldo stuck the putter in his bag before the final round of the 1989 Masters, shot 65 and slipped into the first of his three green jackets after holing a 25-footer to beat Scott Hoch on the second playoff hole.
On that day 25 years ago, Faldo had played his final five holes of the rain-delayed third round in the morning and bogeyed two of them – including a three-putt at 14 – to fall five shots behind leader Ben Crenshaw. Afterward, Faldo made a crucial decision to swap out his Bulls Eye putter, the one he used the day before to hole the longest putt ever made at the Masters, a 100-footer on the second green.
“That putt took so long to get to the hole, I had to shave again by the time it trickled in,” recalled Lee Trevino, who was paired with Faldo in the third round.
Faldo said he rarely changed putters mid-tournament and certainly never during a major. That timely decision is one of Faldo’s fondest memories of the Masters, right up there with the time his eyes were glued to his family’s new color TV and the image of Jack Nicklaus during the 1971 Masters. The next day his mother booked six lessons for her 13-year-old son, and with his single-minded focus, Faldo built a winning swing. There he was 18 years later on Augusta’s practice putting green on Tuesday morning when Nicklaus strolled over and asked how he was doing.
“I said, ‘I just don’t know whether to let it happen or make it happen.’ Typical Jack, he goes, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean,’ and he carried on putting,” Faldo said. “I’m like, OK, I need an answer. Throw me a bone. Give me a clue.”
Faldo made it happen, playing his first 27 holes in 6 under, then made a mess, dropping eight strokes to par over the next 27 holes. The TaylorMade TPA XVIII sparked the putting round of his life. As if under a spell, he snaked a 50-footer for birdie up the slope at the first. His jaw still drops when he describes the 15-footer that he holed at 16: “It broke at least 8 feet to the left,” he said. Then he drained a 30-footer at 17 for good measure.
“The finish was unbelievable,” Faldo said. “Made the putt at 16, 17 and the one at 11 to win the playoff. I never holed three putts like that in my life. Never again.”
The winning putt nearly never happened. At the first playoff hole, No. 10, Faldo bunkered his approach and made bogey. When Hoch ran his 30-foot birdie putt 2 feet past the hole, the tournament appeared over. All these years later, Faldo still expresses surprise that Hoch elected to mark and wait, but to Hoch, there was good reason. He had begun rehearsing his interview and contemplating his travel plans.
“All the things you don’t want to come into your mind while you’re trying to make a putt to win a tournament,” Hoch said. “So that’s when I circled the wagons again, to get my mind focused.”
Hoch pulled the slick, downhill putt, brushing the left edge of the cup, and flipped his putter into the air.
“He opened the door,” Faldo said, “and then I felt like it was destiny.”
At 11, Faldo rolled in “the sweetest putt of my life,” and thrust his arms skyward in triumph.
In recent years, Faldo is more likely to be gripping a set of drumsticks than a putter. It dawned on Faldo as he prepped for his 2014 Champions Tour debut that his pro-am round March 19 would be his first 18 of the year. Faldo is quick to point out that he’s a 36-handicap drummer, but his set is from a real pro, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, who called Faldo several years ago out of the blue, looking for a golf lesson.
“I’m a failed drummer,” Faldo responded. “How about a trade?”
A friendship was forged – “He calls me Nicky Doodle,” Faldo said – and the 2008 Ryder Cup captain Faldo sought a drum set as a stress reliever for the team room. Ian Poulter and Paul Casey were among the team members to bang out their frustration, but the highlight was McBrain stopping by for his own jam session.
Faldo, 56, made a seamless transition to the broadcast booth in 2006 as lead golf analyst with CBS. What began as a stroll down memory lane at last year’s Open Championship at Muirfield, site of his first major title (in 1987), ignited a renewed interest in competitive golf for Faldo. He tied for 53rd at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in March, and committed to play in next week’s RBC Heritage to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first U.S. victory. This summer, his schedule inside the ropes could get hectic, with a potential four-week run at the Greenbrier Classic, Scottish Open, Open Championship and Senior Open Championship.
“Who knows if the body would survive that?” Faldo said.
What’s missing is any mention of a Masters swansong. “I’m a little scared of Augusta,” he said. “I’m clawing, and once you get a little jiggle in the hands, you can putt it right off the greens.”
That was never a concern 25 years ago when the only jiggle made by Faldo’s blade was the sound of ball meeting hole, and what a beautiful score it made.
– Jeff Rude contributed