Pop quiz, readers. Who was the last golfer to be named BBC Sports Personality of the Year? Too slow. The answer is Sir Nick Faldo, who received the award after winning the Masters and World Matchplay Championship in 1989. At the time, critics deemed the award ironic, largely because Faldo’s on-course persona displayed little, if any, personality at all. A quarter of a century on, however, things have changed. Faldo is now seen as one of the funniest men in the game, and it’s all thanks to his role as lead golf analyst on American TV station CBS. So, 25 years on from his victory, we chatted to the former world No.1 about displaying his personality on TV, getting to grips with modern technology, and discovering Rory McIlroy, the man who is both a white-hot favourite to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2014 and odds-on to replace Faldo as the most successful European golfer of the modern era.
How did you get into TV work?
I was invited into the box for the first time when I missed the cut in the 2004 Open at Troon. It wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but I enjoyed it and mustn’t have said anything too bad, because I kept on getting invited back.
In 2006, I was offered the role of lead golf analyst on CBS and I love it. Being on TV allows me to still be a high profile golfer even though I actually play very little golf.
It also allows you to display your very dry sense of humour…
I just say what comes into my head. Sometimes my American colleagues get it and sometimes it hits the back wall of the studio. When then happens, I keep talking, but I know someone, from somewhere or other, is going to remind me about it on Twitter.
Which players do you particularly enjoy commentating on?
There is plenty of entertainment and there are lots of good guys out there, but we love bouncing around with Bubba, because you never know what you’re going to get. Also, Jason Day always goes in with 100%, which is good entertainment given how far these guys can bust it, and Adam Scott’s swing is just superb. Then, of course, there is Rory.
You first saw him play when he joined the Faldo Series aged 12. Was he special then?
I could see his rhythm and tempo were very impressive from the off and was delighted to have him as part of the Faldo Series.
My clearest memories of the young Rory are playing an exhibition match with him when he was 16 and a practice round with him when he was 18. What was impressive about him in those days was that even when he was wearing waterproofs his swing didn’t change. It was so impressive to see a young guy manage to maintain his amazing rhythm when he was wrapped up in lots of kit in the pouring rain. Of course, this rhythm has gone on to become his hallmark.
Do you think we’re entering the “Rory McIlroy era”?
It looks like it. The guy has won four Majors in four years, and look how dominant he was in three of them. That used to be Tiger’s word, didn’t it? He absolutely dominated and Rory is doing the same. He has got an incredible opportunity to be the favourite in every Major he tees it up in for the next five, 10 or perhaps even 15 years. All he needs to do now is come from behind to win one. If he can do that, then everyone will think ‘if he’s leading, he’ll win it, and even if he’s behind, he can catch me.’
What do you make of the distances Rory can propel his drives?
Physically, he can spin his hips faster than anyone else. So when he is on, he is incredibly on and can generate a ridiculous amount of power.
It is all down to his training. During my day, gym work meant lifting dumbbells. Now, the guys throw medicine balls or hop around in rubber bands to help them be more explosive. Rory has trained so hard that even his jawline has changed. He has got mega golf fit and as a result he is hitting it miles.
Are today’s top players hitting it too far?
Yes, but that horse has bolted and we actually quite enjoy watching guys hit 350-yard drives. The downside is the days of setting up a testing par 4 that requires a driver and a 3-iron have gone. These boys can hit it 325 yards off the tee and most of them can hit a 3-iron anything from 230 yards up, so if you want to have a truly testing long par 4 you need to make it around 550 yards.
Will that eventually make legendary courses like the Old Course at St Andrews defunct?
Possibly. We’re already walking back and back to get to the Old Course’s championship tees, and I think that is a great shame for the game of golf. There is nothing worse than putting out and then having to head back 150 or 200 yards to the next tee.
What’s the solution? Do shorter courses have any possible method of defence?
Firm greens are the last bastion. Hard putting surfaces still get the guys thinking and we are seeing a good trend in America where they are drying golf courses out. They have finally realised you don’t have to have receptive, bright green greens to be seen as a good golf course.
What is your opinion on technology?
I love the tech side of the game. In fact, I wish I had come through in this era, because you have adjustable hosels and you can change a shaft in three seconds. That used to be a 24-hour job back in my day! I especially love inventions like TrackMan, because you can make one swing and get factual feedback rather than hitting 1,000 balls and going ‘Hmm, not too sure about that.’
Do you use it a lot?
Yes, and I am still about the squarest out there. I was on it during a PGA Tour event at Greenbrier earlier this year and I surprised everyone by hitting a few shots that came up with a neutral swing path and a square clubface. The old swing is still in there. Sadly, the consistency is completely shot, but when I put the right swing path on it, then I can still do what I was famous for back in the day, which was having the squarest swing on tour.
Would your daily routine have been different if you had played in this era?
It would be completely different, because they have a proper structure now. I tried ‘being a modern golfer’ at this year’s Open. Your trainer warms you up and then you complete some exercises, so you are firing all the right muscles before you hit a ball. Then you go off and play and then you come back and have your cool down. After that, depending on the day and how you feel, you can train for strength or flexibility or speed. It’s fantastic. The science behind this game has really exploded in the last 10-15 years.
Looking back, what was the finest performance of your career?
I had a good run through 1989 and 1990. Those couple of years, I compiled my own stats for the proximity to the hole and I used to mark how many balls I managed to hit inside a 15-foot circle each day. Every round I would get about a dozen shots inside that circle. So during that period, no matter what club I had in my hand, I could pick a fade or draw and execute it at will.
What about an individual tournament? Does one stand out over the others?
My best ball-striking display came in the 1990 Masters. My iron play was pretty darn good that whole year, but it was bang on during that event. At Augusta, you need to be able to land your golf ball on the number and I was pretty close to doing that on every shot that week. When I wanted to hit the ball 147 yards, I hit it 147 or 148. I could almost feel the distance at that time. But you lose that as you get older, and when you do it is hard. In my prime, I could hit a wedge and tell you how far it had gone. Nowadays, if you told me it was 10 yards short or 10 yards past, I wouldn’t have a clue. I’ve lost that wonderful bit of feel.
You still hold the record for scoring the most Ryder Cup points. Would you take part in a Senior Ryder Cup?
I don’t know. A lot depends on how they pitch it. Is it going to be an exhibition match for the over 50s, or a serious contest? If they go for the latter, it will be very difficult for them to rekindle the emotion, adrenaline and intensity of the Ryder Cup, but if they make it a nice, simple format, it might work. They have got to get the tone right. If they do and they go for smaller teams, then I think it could be a good, fun event, featuring some very competitive golfers.
Talking of fun events, the Faldo Series Final features golfers of both sexes competing in the same event. Can you see a mixed event being added to the tour schedule?
As a fun event, why not? The tours could do the maths and work out the average length of each player, so if the hole is meant to be a drive and a 7-iron, it can be a drive and a 7-iron for the men and the ladies. It might not work as a full event, but if there is space for a small field in an exhibition-style event, then it could be quite a cool thing to do.
Alongside Rory, a lot of other top golfers launched their careers through the Faldo Series. Who do you think will be the next star to emerge from your junior set-up?
I am not sure about the guys, but definitely look out for 16-year-old American Megan Khang. She won the Faldo Series Final in 2014, has already qualified for the US Women’s Open twice and is one to keep an eye on.
According to a lot of people, kids coming into the game are playing slowly because they’re copying the pros. Have you noticed this happening in Faldo Series events?
Actually, the most obvious change is the decline of the practice putting stroke. Over the last five years, more and more players have been getting over the ball, picking a spot and getting on with it.
Finally... can golf survive without Tiger?
Of course it can! Sure, things will change and television ratings will fall when Tiger retires, but the game will be fine, especially if the youngsters coming through manage to capture the public’s imagination. And, judging by what I see from the commentary booth, I think they can. Right now, the professional game is packed with good golf, good colour, good entertainment and good characters.