Greg Norman, global golf, the ’96 Masters: Nick Faldo has thoughts on it all

Split image of Nick Faldo and Greg Norman at Masters on left, and Nick Faldo on black background on right

Nick Faldo tried setting up an interview with Greg Norman about the current state of pro golf, but Norman passed.

AP photo / Michael Williams

Sir Nick Faldo wasn’t born of aristocratic blood. The knighted World Golf Hall of Famer was raised in public housing, north of London, the only child of an accountant and a dressmaker whose acquisition of a color TV counted as a luxury purchase — one that altered the course of their son’s life.

It was on that screen that a then-13-year-old Faldo watched Jack Nicklaus compete in the 1971 Masters, against a dazzling backdrop of dogwoods and azaleas. It was his first glimpse of golf, and the last time he wondered what he wanted for his future.

“I always figured I would work an outdoor job, but I thought it would be something like landscaping or forestry,” he says. 

With a hodgepodge set of clubs, guidance from a local pro and tunnel vision that would become his trademark, Faldo morphed into a teenage range rat. At 16, he quit school to make room for his obsession. At 19, he turned pro, setting off on a path to Ryder Cup stardom, six major titles, nearly 50 tournament wins around the globe, and a 97-week run as the top-ranked golfer in the world — with plenty of tumult along way. 

young nick faldo
You know Sir Nick Faldo. Here’s Young Nick Faldo.

In 1985, almost a decade into his professional career, Faldo all but started over, retooling his swing under David Leadbetter. Two painstaking years later, he emerged with a more resilient game, and the same single-mindedness that made him easy pickings for the British tabloids. “Arrogant” and “prickly” were two of the kinder terms that Fleet Street had for Faldo, who often hurt his own cause by playing the part.

“If I could do it over, I might take a different approach to public relations,” says Faldo, whose marital troubles became headline fodder, too. “But at the time, all that intensity and focus, everything I did — that’s what I felt I needed to be able to compete at the highest level.”

Given his testy rapport with the press, many saw it as ironic, in 2006, when Faldo became a member of the media himself, signing on as the lead golf analyst for CBS. The new role, though, revealed Faldo as everything his reputation wasn’t: funny, incisive, self-effacing. In their farewell broadcast, after 16 years in the tower together, play-by-play man Jim Nantz praised his partner not once but twice for having been “the best in the world.”

Retiring for a second time did not mean retreating from public life. In his third act, Faldo remains busy as a course designer, a brand ambassador and a driving force behind the Faldo Series, a competitive circuit for junior golfers. He still picks his spots as a commentator, too. 

As he did last spring, Sir Nick will be sitting in this year with Sky Sports at the Masters, a tournament he won three times, none more memorably than in 1996, when he hunted down Greg Norman, who’d entered the final round with a six-stroke lead.

A cold-eyed killer then, Faldo, 66, looked vulnerable on a recent weekday morning, as he hobbled around a sprawling rental house in Scottsdale (he and wife, Lindsay, had escaped their snowy home in Montana for the desert sun), nursing a bum hip that has since been surgically replaced. Smacking shots is harder than it used to be for him. But talking shop comes easy. With another trip down Magnolia Lane awaiting, GOLF sat with Faldo to ask about his favorite Masters memories, his early reputation and later reinvention, and whether he ever rings up the Shark to discuss the current state of golf.

Josh Sens: The Masters is almost here. Fair to say that if it weren’t for that tournament, there would be no Nick Faldo, the golfer?

Nick Faldo: Quite possibly, yes. The tournament. And Jack Nicklaus. And those azaleas. I have no idea why I was watching the Masters that Sunday. I had no connection to golf. But I was switching through the channels, and there it was beaming over on the good old BBC. And the beauty of Augusta, and the way Jack carried himself. He didn’t win that year. Charles Coody did. But that was enough for me. The next morning, I announced to my parents that I wanted to be golfer. And my mum said, ‘Well, you’re going to need a haircut.’

JS: And lessons.

NF: We went over to Welwyn Garden City Golf Club, and I thought, right, let’s get started. But the assistant pro, Chris Arnold, taught me discipline. The first day, we worked on grip. The next day stance. The next was a bit of posture. We didn’t hit a ball. Kids today, if they haven’t hit a ball in the first three seconds, they’re complaining.

JS: Once you started hitting balls, though, seems like you never stopped.

NF: When I wasn’t at the course, I’d go across the street to the school playing field, and I’d hit balls on the soccer pitch. There was a long-jump pit out there, and that was my target, and if I didn’t hit it on 17 out of 20 shots, I’d be miffed. It’s funny because I went back 20 years later, and that pit was barely 8 feet by 12 feet. But that was typical of my mentality. It was the same when I practiced at the course. I had one green, one bunker, one flag Those were my targets. I wasn’t just thrashing it down the range. I was very focused. It made me who I am.

JS: That focus reminds me of something you once said. That you were prepared to be a professional athlete but not prepared to be a celebrity.

NF: Good point. Yes.

JS: What did you mean by that?

NF: The guys today have to be prepared. They have a camera in their face from the minute you walk inside from the carpark. They have to learn to deal with it. I would get pissed with one camera in my face. I went to Japan when I was probably World No. 1 and I had 28 photographers around me, full circle, in a practice round. Every move was, click, click, click. And they didn’t leave a gap. And I’m going, ‘Excuse me,’ and trying to push through them. And that was just one day.

JS: If you could do it over, would you handle yourself differently?

NF: If I was out there now, I’d train myself to be smart. I’d make sure I did all the live interviews because people see you. If you’ve just shot 74, and you’re pissed off, you come in and say, ‘Lousy day. Crap shot here. Crap shot there. I need to work on this.’ And then, ‘Excuse me, I’ve got an hour’s worth of daylight. Off I go.’ And people think, ‘That’s all right. Well done.’ But if you’ve stormed through a line of press guys going, ‘Oh, I ain’t talking,’ well, sure, they paint a picture.

Nick Faldo reacts to making the winning putt in the 1989 Masters. AP Photo

JS: Did you think the picture painted of you was inaccurate?

NF: I think I suffered from the media wanting a good guy and a bad guy. In my era, they wanted Sandy Lyle to be the good guy, and me to be the bad guy. But there are two sides to a story. You can either make something look good or something look bad. And it felt like they were leaning toward making me look bad. And there are plenty of silly examples.

JS: Such as?

NF: One year, I walked off the green at the PGA Championship and went to the press tent, and I must have signed 50 autographs in those 50 yards. As it got to the door and it was closing, there’s one kid going, ‘Please, please, please.’ And he was the ‘no.’ And that was the story. Faldo didn’t sign. It sounds harmless. But they build that up. And people judge you on it. 

JS: You had a reputation of being icy and aloof. But it seems like you cared a lot what people said about you.

NF: Well, you do. I think most people want to be liked, or loved, or respected. Whatever level it is. 

JS: You also really wanted to be the best, and so you remade your swing. That was a tough transition. Did you ever question what you were doing?

NF: Never. Not even when I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel. I was constantly thinking about my swing. Constantly working. And playing badly. Getting walloped in the press. I lost pretty much all my sponsors except for Pringles. It wasn’t pretty. But for me, it was really just sheer determination to come out of the other end.

JS: Of all the big wins that came on the other side, the one that stands out for most fans has to be the ’96 Masters. How often do you think about that?

NF: I get reminded about it all the time. If I go through an airport, literally every time someone will come up to me and say, ‘You and Greg! It’s why I took up golf.’ Or, ‘great going, mate. I just wanted to say that.’ Or I’m sitting in a meeting with chairman or even government officials, and they’ll say, before we get started, tell us about ’96.’

JS: You ever get tired of it?

NF: Are you kidding? It’s an honor. I’m also fortunate. Thankfully, I’m telling good side of the story rather than the other side.

JS: I remember a newspaper account of that final round describing Norman as having faltered —and this line still sticks with me — “under Faldo’s pitiless pursuit.” Was that your mindset? A kind of ruthlessness?

NF: I probably had a bit more than pity in me. I’ve said this before, but the message you always try to send the other guy was, as we say in Britain, ‘I’m all right, Jack. I can handle this.’ Inside, you’re churning, and you are running doubts in your mind. But if you stand there and look confident and chin up, the other person looks at you and thinks, ‘Bloody hell. He’s all right. He can handle it.’ So that’s what I was probably going for. But I wouldn’t say it was a conscious effort.

JS: When you hugged Norman at the end, some people said that helped humanize you in the public eye. Do you think that’s true?

NF: What I can say is that it was totally genuine. I am very lucky. I have lost majors. But I have no scars. I don’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, f—k. I screwed up the U.S. Open.’ I haven’t blown a major. I got close. I nearly blew the Open Championship in ‘92. I know the knife’s edge. So, I genuinely felt for (Norman). So, I said, ‘I don’t know what to say, mate. But I feel for you, and I’ll give you a hug.’ And it was 100-percent genuine, because I know I would have been scarred from that.

Greg Norman and Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters. AP Photo

JS: Ten years later, you played in your last Masters. How did you know it was time to stop?

NF: The course had gotten so long. I’m pretty sure it was ’06. I had my son the bag. And I stood on top of the hill on the 9th hole, and it was damp and a bit cold and I’ve got three-iron in my hand coming into the green.  And I was like, ‘Let’s see. I’ve got the ball below my feet. I can’t hit a fade over those bunkers down the left because they’re as big as houses. There’s no way I can hit the ball on the green. So, when CBS said, ‘If you’re coming to the tower, you’ve got to stop playing golf, I said, ‘Great. Thank you very much. I’d have made the decision myself.’

JS: Without the TV offer, you really would have stopped?

NF: I don’t know. I think you battle on. But it was a tough period. I felt like I was losing my game at the end the ‘90s. And you’ve gone four or five years not playing well. And that didn’t suit my mentality. So, when the TV opportunity came along, I said, ‘Yeah. I can do that.’ I made myself one rule: I’m not going to sit in that TV tower and wish I was playing. And that worked. It actually turned out to be the opposite, where I’d be watching a champion come down the stretch and how they pieced it all together, and I thought, ‘That was cool. I could do that.’ And instead of regret, what you find is gratitude for what you’ve had.

JS: We all learn through mistakes. Did you make any big blunders in the booth that taught you any important lessons?

NF: TV is hilarious. You sit down and they go. ‘That’s your on key. That’s the producer. That’s your cough button. Off you go.’

JS: No training?

NF: That was it. But it was okay, probably thanks to my dad who told me, ‘Stick to what you know.’ I know nothing about politics. I know nothing about religion. So, I thought, just stick to golf. And that’s all I ever did.

JS: Ben Hogan once asked to meet you because he said you were the only pro he ever saw who reminded him of himself. Have you seen anyone who reminds you of you?

NF: I remember sitting with (Jim) Nantz and talking about a player and saying, ‘He’s got a little of this and a little of that.’ And Nantz looked at me and said, ‘Remind you of anyone?’ And I knew what he was thinking.

JS: Who was the player?

NF: For the life of me, I can’t remember. 

JS: That itself seems telling.

NF: I’ll let you know if it comes to me. But bottom line is I think a lot of golfers in the era after me thought, I’ll just waltz out there and win some majors. But they’re not quite as easy as you think, you know?

Faldo pictured with his longtime broadcast partner, Jim Nantz. Michael Cohen / PGA Tour

JS: Did you feel broadcasting finally gave people a chance to see the real you? 

NF: I think so. You’ve got to try to have fun and try to entertain. Or at least entertain yourself. Some people thought it was false because I’d been so serious on the course. But I did that because it’s what I thought was best for me. It wasn’t like it is in the game today. I walked through the locker room when I was doing TV, and the four leaders were having lunch together. And I came back on TV, and I’m like, ‘I’m in shock. Do you think I ever sat with Seve and Greg?’ Never. You had to win to change your lifestyle. 

JS: Nowadays, it seems like all we hear about on Tour is money.

NF: In all my years on TV, and we were not allowed to mention prize money. I might have said, ‘Wow, the FedEx Cup is worth $10 million.’ But you never said, This putt’s for a million dollars. I cannot think of five times when I mentioned it. But now money is all anybody talks about. And it’s gone to this new level where someone like (Sergio) Garcia says, ‘We’re finally getting paid what we’re worth.’ Hang on a minute, mate. Not insulting anybody’s intelligence, but I don’t think there’s more than 10 percent of guys out there who could make a really good wage if they weren’t playing golf. I won five times one year for $100,000, total. Today, all you’ve got to do is arrive on the practice green and tip your balls out, play nicely. Sure. You’ve got to play nicely. Pat a few kids on the head. You might not even have to do an interview. Might not get seen on TV.  You can finish 12th and get a quarter of a million dollars. 

JS: Is all that money a bad sign for the game?

NF: I think it’s definitely gotten out of hand. It doesn’t represent where golf is. Because golf fluctuates anywhere between 10th and 13th most popular sport in the world. It’s about fifth or sixth most popular sport in America. And we are struggling right now with TV ratings. Look at (the Farmers Insurance Open). It was less than 1.5 million viewers. Down 27 percent from the year before. All the people I’ve talked to, more have switched off in their minds to watching golf than have switched on. 

JS: Why do you think that is?

NF: I started to see it toward the latter parts of my time in the tower. When I used to say something smart or stupid, my phone would light up. Forty people would say, ‘Faldo, that was great. Or Faldo, you’re an ass.’ Whatever. And then it literally went from 40 people to four people. And then it went to one. People just switched off from paying attention to golf. That’s what I’ve felt. I think we bombarded people with too much golf. I’ve done nearly 20 years of television. Outside of the majors, can you tell me your top-five most exciting tournaments?

JS: There have been some exciting Players Championships. Let me think for …

NF: There you go! Let me think. Jordan Spieth holing his bunker shot. Okay? So, after that, where’s the next really exciting one? That’s the challenge, isn’t it. Golf is a very difficult game to make exciting on TV. Outside of the majors, when was the last time two superstars slugged it out down the stretch. That’s what people want to see. But it is so rare. And TV suffered in my opinion when these knuckleheads started saying, ‘We need to see more live shots.’  Number one, you’re an idiot, because in golf, when you show a shot, there are other guys on 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18, and you can only show one, because it’s frickin’ live, right? So, the poor producer has to pick. He shows the guy on 15 but the other guys have to be recorded. It cannot be live. So, when the press started having a go at that, that we need more live shots, they just don’t understand TV.

JS: Because the shots need context?

NF: Ten years or so ago, we had a meeting with CBS at Pebble Beach saying we had to show more live shots. So, we go out and we show 323 shots or whatever. And I go, Can you remember one? You can’t remember anything. I called it ping-pong golf. Let’s go to 14. Billy Bob’s got a 7-iron. Good shot. Now to 13. Bobby Ray’s got an 8-iron. Or they want you to be quiet so they can listen to the caddies. They think that’s the greatest thing in the world. But you don’t know what the caddie’s going to say. Or they might just whisper something. And it’s not clear. Oh, my god. Don’t even get me started.

JS: If you were appointed the ruler of professional golf, what would be your first move?

NF: I don’t know. I’m not going to go down that road because I’m actually disappointed at what has just happened. I thought we were going global. But now it seems we’ve gone back to totally separated. America is America, and LIV, off you go, do your thing. It doesn’t help golf to be fractured, for the actual game, or for watching the game.

JS: Your solution would be a kind of world tour?

NF: That’s what I played on. I would love it to be, maybe, 120 guys, and they’re going to go around to the old opens that we played. South Africa. Australia. You have a European Open. You play some in America. Some in Asia. Now we’ve got the Middle East opening up. The top 60 make the cut. And the other guys who missed. Guess what? You go off and actually grow the game. You stay in town. You play with the school kids. You do exhibitions. Because you’re all going to hop on the charter on Sunday and go to the next stop anyway. And there’s an Order of Merit. And a shuffle at the end of the season. So, there’s an element of being competition again. And not just shooting 20 over and still getting $120,000. The major problem with all of that is that America would have to swallow the pill that they are not the No. 1 tour. And they’re never going to do that. They’re hanging on. I think they may have just delayed what’s going to happen in five years’ time anyway.

JS: It’s interesting to be talking to you about the state of golf and also the ’96 Masters, given Norman’s role in the game. Have you talked to him at all since LIV?

NF: No. I’ve tried to. I wanted to do an interview. I had this idea of creating content. So, I messaged him and said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and talk about this?’ And he came back with, ‘We’re on a different page. We don’t see eye to eye.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. That’s the whole point of interview. You tell me your side. We can talk about the past. And sure, we can talk about LIV. You can tell me why you think it is so wonderful.’ He never replied to me on that one.

JS: Is there anything you really wanted to ask him?

NF: I would have asked, “How do you really plan to super-charge the game? What are you really trying to accomplish? Was that really your mission to be paying guys we’ve never heard of?” I don’t even know some of the names, let alone the faces. Was that really your goal when you sat down to give these guys $120 million? To buy golfers at this extortionary rate? Tyrrell [Hatton] came out with, “I’m looking forward to the team aspect. I played in the Ryder Cup and loved it.” Well, the Ryder Cup is the pinnacle, isn’t it? We have one of the greatest sporting events in the world, and you play it for nothing. You’re playing for your heart and your guts. And Tyrrell says, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a team event each week?” Please.

JS: A bunch of the LIV guys will be at Augusta. So will you. When you left broadcasting, did you miss it more than you thought you would?

NF: Not the grind of being on the road 20 weeks a year. I couldn’t handle the full schedule. It’s just too much. Once it hits you mentally that you have two flights a week for six months of the year. But I wanted to keep doing a bit of TV. So, this is perfect. I come back for the majors. I go to Augusta. It’s good fun. I have so many great memories. And I think I can add something. I can tell people, this shot is really hard, and here’s why, because I know how hard it is. I can tell them what’s it’s like to be coming down the stretch trying to win the Masters, because I know what’s that like, too.

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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