THE BELFRY, 1985: As Concorde dips her wings in a low-flying salute, big Sandy and wee Woosie are playing at being firemen with champagne bottles, Seve and Bernhard are dragging Tony Jacklin into their chaotic conga line, and Sam is already embarking upon the making of an almighty hangover which he will still be assembling 48 hours later. Alone at a corner table in the clubhouse sits Nick Faldo, nursing his mortification like a gathering storm. Without so much as a half-point to his name, Faldo may have been a member of Europe's victorious Ryder Cup team but, to his way of thinking, he has nothing to celebrate...
Having served as the ghost writer of his autobiography, I can attest that even 23 years on, the memory still rankles. "As far as I was concerned, the 11 other fellas had won the trophy. One of the greatest moments in European golf and there was I, Little Jack Horner sulking in a corner. That hurt because I had a great Ryder Cup record until then - 11 points out of 15 and unbeaten in singles. It would have been nice if Tony or someone had come looking for me, put his arm around my shoulders and said, 'C'mon my son, get your ass out there, you're as much a part of the team as anyone'. That's when my tendency to be a loner came back to haunt me with a vengeance."
An only child growing up on a council estate in Welwyn Garden City, Nick Faldo always preferred solitary pursuits - cycling, canoeing, swimming (he won the Hertfordshire under-10 breaststroke championship in 1966) - to team sports such as rugby, football or cricket. Now the ultimate loner faces his greatest challenge in what is arguably the ultimate sports team event in his role as the European Ryder Cup captain. As a player, the three times Open and three times Masters' champion remains the contest's most successful competitor with 25 points - Bernhard Langer is next on 24 with the American Billy Casper and Colin Montgomerie on 23½ - but it as a leader of men that he will be judged when the sporting battle commences at the Valhalla Club, Louisville.
Faldo, as we have come to expect of the man whatever the occasion, harbours no self-doubts. "I sincerely believe I can bring something new to the captaincy, harnessing all the skills I have learned from the various victorious skippers under whom I have served; the psychology and man-management of Tony Jacklin, the attention to detail and tactical awareness of Bernard Gallacher, the passion and inventiveness of Seve Ballesteros - together with a few new ideas that I have up my sleeve."
Let us make a study of Faldo's aptitude in those six skills. Throughout his long reign as the world No 1 he had no peers in the art of psychology. Who else but Nick Faldo could have given Greg Norman a six-shot start before the final round of the 1996 Masters and emerge triumphant by five strokes? "I knew six back was nothing at Augusta. I also knew that given my matchplay record - and this was nothing but a matchplay situation - that if I could bloody Greg's nose by landing an early blow then all things were possible. I made a conscious effort to stand taller, walk more purposefully, to show no reaction whatsoever to any wayward shot. That's all you can do in golf. You can not physically beat up the other guy but with my bearing, my expression, my stride I wanted to remind Greg, 'Hey, I don't know about you, but I'm all right mate."
As someone who made a habit of cutting his fingernails only on a Monday so as not to affect the balance of his putting grip, nor can we question his attention to detail. Consider the following incident from the 1983 Ryder Cup at Palm Beach Gardens. "Having played in the States for much of the previous two years, I was stunned to discover that we were being given just one pair of shoes for the week and one shirt per day. At the first team meeting I stood up and said, 'Do any of you know what the weather is like here in Florida at this time of the year? It's brutally humid and it rains every afternoon. The course will be soaking wet so we will need at least two pairs of shoes and three shirts a day'. Sure enough, after our initial practice rounds we all had to troop off to the pro shop to buy another 13 matching shirts. I hated to say 'I told you so' but I did."
Tactically, too, Faldo should have the measure of American counterpart Paul Azinger. In his 11 Ryder Cup appearances as a player, it is safe to presume that, as a wannabe captain, he also took time to study the methods of the opposing skippers such as Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. And while inventiveness is not a quality with which he is he normally associated, we can look forward to some highly imaginative four-ball and foursomes pairings.
"Some partnerships come together like ham, and eggs - Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal immediately spring to mind - but there can be a multitude of permutations that might or might not work. What flash of divine inspiration persuaded Jacklin to pair Ian Woosnam, that dedicated party animal, with me at Muirfield Village in '87 when we contributed 3½ points out of four to Europe's stunning 15-13 victory?"
Then, ahem, we come to the final two components in Faldo's identikit of the perfect Ryder Cup captain; firstly, man-management. At Kiawah Island in 1991, Faldo all but ignored his sidekick, the "rookie" Dave Gilford, throughout the 12-hole ordeal of their humiliating 7&6 mauling at the hands of Mark O'Meara and Azinger. As the senior partner, Faldo was savaged in sections of the press for not putting an arm around his dejected teammate's shoulder and saying something along the lines of, "C'mon my son, you're as much a part of the team as anyone..." (Remember that sentiment, Nick?)
"David was shy and less than talkative so, in retrospect, I daresay I should have offered him some encouragement. But in the cauldron of the Ryder Cup when you are fighting your own demons on the course as I was, that's difficult. My perceived lack of support is still being used in evidence that I am not a team player although I won more foursomes than any other player. I now realise that I should have had a quiet word with David when we were out on the course and my failure to do so provided my critics with further evidence of my so-called aloofness."
A multi-millionaire businessman employing a vast staff in a range of companies covering everything from course design to fine wines, we must presume that Faldo has learned from the error of his ways in man-management; even so, the boardroom is a world removed from the locker-room. Should Europe trail the Americans 4-0 after the first morning's foursomes, then the team will be in urgent need of a Bill Shankly style motivator and not the clinical analysis of Mr Spock in a golf sweater. A great communicator (except in his role of TV commentator) he is not. Can he, therefore, find the words of inspiration to put fire in the bellies of those under his command? That is the burning question.
To passion: who can ever forget the sight of Ballesteros flying around Valderrama in his buggy like Lewis Hamilton on speed during the 1997 contest? Perhaps he achieved the illusion of being in attendance on 12 holes at the same time with the aid of mirrors or maybe he employed a huge army of doppelgangers as stand-ins, but wherever and whenever something of import occurred on the course, there hovered Ballesteros - his handsome features a constantly changing kaleidoscope of emotions - at the very epicentre of the drama.
"Can I bring the same passion to the job? Are you kidding? The ultimate, the absolute ultimate, for me, would be to experience what Sam Torrance experienced at the Belfry in 2002. I want that so badly." Ah, but surely Faldo would be an entirely different species of captain to Slammin' Sam who wept buckets at the moment of victory? "Anyone who really knows me will tell you that once you pierce my armour, I'm just a big softie at heart. Oh, yeah, I'd be crying all right. The Ryder Cup is, simply, the most wonderful competition. It's a bit like the Olympics; it only comes round once every two years whereas there are four majors every year. Although golf is an individual sport, being part of a team is a feeling like no other. You don't want to let anyone down. You see the other guys working and suffering and digging down deep and then, when it's all over, you say, 'God, I'm glad to have been a part of that moment in time'."
We are about to discover whether Little Jack Horner really has finally emerged from the dark shadows of his private corner? email@example.com