September 22, 2008

What Was He Thinking

After his team's upset, European captain Nick Faldo faces questions, controversy

Euro players defended Faldo's lineups, but some past captains did not.

It has long been the way of things, an immutable law of all sporting endeavor and its intrinsic identification of winners and losers. Throughout history, stirring tales of derring-do have tended to be written under the victor's byline.

Not always, though—and certainly not on this occasion.

In the aftermath of America's well-earned and long-awaited five-point triumph in the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla, it is safe to assume the losing team will undergo more than its fair share of unsolicited psychoanalysis. In particular, the performance by Europe's captain, Nick Faldo, will long be discussed in newspapers, magazines and grillrooms across the pond. Recriminations, especially in the 51-year old Englishman's homeland, will be rife, second-guessing being a national pastime ranking just ahead of Royals watching and a smidgen shy of cricket.

All of which, it must be said, is understandable. In contrast to the cold-blooded silent assassin (and record Ryder Cup points-scorer) that was Faldo the player, his erratic and emotional job as captain was jarring even to British eyes and ears used to the six-time major champion's legendary level of self-absorption. Beyond a succession of head-scratching tactical decisions during the matches themselves, Faldo perpetrated any number of faux pas during his week-long stay in Kentucky.

The low moment, among many from a man once described by his second wife, Gill, as "a 24-handicapper socially," was his speech during the opening ceremony. In an embarrassing ramble through seemingly every member of his family, the history of Ireland and a series of accents Inspector Clouseau would have rejected as too unlikely, Faldo perplexed the vast majority of his audience.

Introducing Padraig Harrington, Faldo was moved to stereotypically comment that the British Open and PGA champion had "hit more balls than potatoes have been planted in Ireland." Introducing Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, Faldo asked, "Do you come from Ireland or Northern Ireland?" Not too long ago, bad men were killing each other over similar queries. And let's not even get into his intro of Sren Hansen as "Sren Stenson."

When it came to golfing decisions, Faldo left behind furrowed brows and puzzled expressions. Nothing new in that, of course. Even before arriving in Kentucky, Britain's greatest-ever golfer had endured almost universal criticism for making Ian Poulter (who had four points) rather than Darren Clarke one of his two wild-card picks. Then there was his refusal—despite advice from past European skippers—to appoint more than one vice-captain.

Once the matches began, Faldo's actions became even harder to understand, the questions piling up almost by the minute.

Why, for example, did the ultra-reliable and in-form Miguel Angel Jiménez not play in Friday's foursomes?

Why did the three longest hitters on the European squad—Henrik Stenson, Robert Karlsson and Paul Casey—all sit out the first series of fourballs, a format well suited to each of them?

Why was the seemingly made-for-foursomes Oliver Wilson left out of the first series?

Why was Harrington benched Saturday afternoon?

Why did Faldo backload his singles lineup so the result was a fait accompli with four of his best players still on the course?

Why were Sergio Garcia (unbeaten in nine previous Ryder Cup foursomes) and Lee Westwood (unbeaten in his 12 most recent matches) not in the second alternate-shot matches?

An explanation for that last question was forthcoming: Garcia was tired and Westwood had blisters. But why did Garcia roam the fairways encouraging his side before playing that afternoon? And how did Westwood's foot problem heal up so readily?

"Like everyone else I was surprised when Nick left out Lee and Sergio," commented Sam Torrance, who skippered the 2002 European team to resounding victory at The Belfry. "But it turned out there were good reasons for doing so. Of course, he could have diffused all the controversy by saying so at the time.

"I'll tell you why he didn't though," said Torrance. "He wanted the press to be writing that he was wrong when he knew he was right and would be shown to be right. In other words, he was making a point to those he sees as his tormentors."

Touchingly and perhaps correctly, more than one member of the European team leapt to Faldo's defense during a stilted and at times fractious post-match press conference.

"We hold the golf clubs, and we hit the shots, not the captain," said Westwood. "If you want to talk about me and Sergio being rested Saturday morning, that's the session we won, so Nick was right to do that."

Others were less kind to Faldo and his apparently off-the-cuff style, which some felt was designed to shock and—had his squad won—have everyone applauding his genius. Even before the matches started, former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy had expressed his misgivings to the Sunday Telegraph.

"I fear Faldo may try to be too smart and go with instinctive pairings from out of left field," said the two-time British Amateur champion. "I fear his pairings might be about showing how clever Faldo is, rather than about just doing the right thing."

There was evidence that McEvoy was right. The unlikely—and ultimately victorious—coupling of Stenson and Wilson in the Saturday foursomes was a perfect example.

In the end then, Faldo is likely to be judged harshly by history, his peers and, in particular, the sometimes-rabid British press, with whom he has long had a less than chummy relationship.

"This Ryder Cup was a complete [mess]," said one former European skipper. "You can't have four strong players at the end of your singles lineup when you are two points behind. We lost by five points, but it wasn't even that close. The match was over after only eight singles."

Even at a closing ceremony in which he and his side were hardly the centers of attention, Faldo found time for one more gaffe. Ignoring—or perhaps ignorant of—the amount of money already spent by the Welsh taxpayers in the promotion of both their proud nation and the next Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, the European captain left his audience laughing with one last merry quip.

"See you all in Wales in 2010," said Faldo. "Bring your waterproofs."