Sir Nick Faldo knows a thing or two about Augusta. He’s played there since 1979, winning three times – more than any other European. “I love Augusta, just love being there,” he told us as we sat down in the clubhouse at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona, where he’s working for US TV.
In 1997, he had a grandstand seat for Tiger’s first Major win, playing alongside the newly-minted tour pro for the first two rounds. That was a year after Faldo made the comeback of comebacks by demolishing Greg Norman’s six-shot lead to claim his third green jacket. He is rightly proud of his Augusta record. “Not many players have won four Masters and the group that has won three (Phil Mickelson, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret) is a really cool group to be part of,” he enthuses.
“I love going back. We have a wonderful tradition with my son Matthew arriving Saturday night. We play together on Sunday when there is nobody out there and then go out and play in the Par 3. That will never get old.”
Britain’s best-ever golfer – he also won three Opens – said his farewell to Major golf at the 2015 Open at St Andrews, his 100th Major championship. “Not a bad time and place to call it a day,” he smiles. Here he reflects on everything Augusta including Tiger’s record-breaking win, what is required to master Augusta, his own Masters heroes and who he thinks will challenge for the green jacket this April...
The course is on a knife-edge. A knife-edge between a good shot, a very good shot and a great shot. They’re not actually offering you the good shot; they’re asking you to make the very good one literally all the time if you want to get close. You have a number where you want to land the ball, which is right over those ridges on the greens, and then you decide the shape of shot. So if you’re going to hit a fade, you’d better hit a fade to find that number. If you try to find that number with a draw, it won’t be the right shot and you can’t get close. Say you’ve got 52 yards in and the flag is six feet over a ridge: you know you’ve got to land it on the money. If you’re three feet too long you’re dead. You run out of space in a lot of places. In my last win in particular, it was all about the calculations – you can’t just go for a flag because of all the angles; you either run out of room behind the flag, or hit a little false front going the other way and off she wanders. Augusta is all about those small but critical margins.
What do you need to do well to win? Everything! But distance control is huge. You’ve got to be hitting your irons great. I was hitting things right on the button in ’96 and literally landing anything on the number, which was really cool. Then, the par-4 5th was a 2-iron in! Trying to hit a 2-iron to stay on the green... well you couldn’t. But you could get it running up there and finish it off. And then there’s the driving, which has got tougher over the years. It used to be relatively easy, but they’ve toughened up a lot of the tee shots. You’ve got to sling it in the right places, especially on 10 and 11, while 14 is tough because the fairway goes left to right and you’re trying to hook it with a pine tree in the corner staring right at you.
You’ve got to be a great downhill putter, with great touch and imagination. You’re going to get 30ft putts with 15 feet of break and you’ve got to learn to see and feel that. And they’re so fast at times you can’t get perfect weights so you’ve got to make sure you miss it in the right quadrant to ensure the one coming back is only left or right edge. If you miss it leaving a six-footer with a foot of break, that’s hell! You might make a few, but you’ll wear yourself out by the end of the week.
Expect the unexpected. The greens will change on a daily basis. One day they might be stopping in three or four feet, the next in five or seven and you’ve got to latch on to that really quickly with your caddie. Realise ‘oh, it’s rock hard out there today’ and work out what you can do... or if it’s a bit soft you have to play differently. As it firms up, you’re going to run out of space everywhere. Fine margins, always fine margins.
I don’t recall that much about playing the first two rounds with Tiger in ’97. I only really have two memories. The first was when we both looked at each other on the 5th green. Back then, Augusta’s new SubAir system would dry the greens out on Wednesday night, so they’d go from green to yellow in a day and become rock hard, completely different. The other thing I can remember, like everybody else, was him chipping in on 12.
My top five Masters winners? Jack Nicklaus is No.1 because he was my introduction to golf, watching in 1971. He didn’t win, but he was the one who influenced me to say ‘oh, I want to try golf.’ Second, Seve. He was huge. He opened everybody’s eyes, becoming the first European winner and he and Europe went on a roll at Augusta. But no way on paper were we prepared for Augusta, because our courses were nothing like it. Then Tiger Woods. After I presented him with the green jacket in ’97, nobody saw him for dust at Augusta for the next 12 years or so. That was phenomenal. Four is Charl Schwartzel. The 2011 Masters produced amazing TV, with 10 players within a shot of each other, including Schwartzel. I’ve always rated his game and I went through the list of players in contention and remember asking if this guy had the mentality to win. He did. Finally, Phil Mickelson. He’s won it three times, and now he’s got five Majors under his belt, which is really good... nearly as good as me!
Who’ll win? It’s a tough one. Not being negative, but you have to look for everybody’s weakness, whether it’s physical, technical or mental or karma. When the top players are on, they’re on and it’s difficult to pick, so I think it’s more fascinating how finely tuned they all are. They’re all like Ferraris – if they twang and the back goes they’re not done for two days, they’re sidelined for a month or more and then if their swing goes to pot, it really goes to pot for a while. Mentally, they’re a bit up and down; some can lose their attention span. For me, if you’re doing everything at 100% something is surely going to give. I remember going through a rough spell when my psychologist warned me that doing everything at 100% will result in something going bang. Physically, these boys go at 100%. Rory’s done his back in, and with that injury you’ve got to be careful. You can’t keep re-injuring that – so that’s slowed him down. Then there’s Hideki, but he’s under an awful lot of pressure to try and become the first Japanese winner. That’s huge… if he did it, it would be worth about $500m to him. That’s a lot to think about! Then there’s Jordan Spieth (below), who would have won it last year except for one bad swing on 12. And that’s the thing about Augusta – if you lose your concentration on a wedge shot, that’s it, a seven. That’s Augusta.
Our interview took place at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, one of the world’s leading golfing destinations. Visit www.experiencescottsdale.com