Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

James Lawton: Faldo's instincts proved correct after old guard's desertion in hour of need

Were we really supposed to be impressed by the way Europe's old guard golfers gathered around their embattled captain Nick Faldo here in the ashes of Ryder Cup defeat?

It is fervently to be hoped not, because in any league table of spurious loyalty this had to be in the running for some kind of championship medal. The old guard had been asked to seize the day, but instead, they could only reach, when the day had been lost, even surrendered, into that ragbag of platitudes that is so often produced when a degree of honesty might just invite a little too much self-scrutiny.

Of course, the men who gave up the Ryder Cup in the place where it could only be truly and practically defended, endorsed their captain. It was at that late hour the right thing to do, even though, to be brutal, it had the practical value of a vote of confidence from Roman Abramovich.

Whether the erratic style of Faldo's leadership deserved anything better than such tokenism is an entirely different question, of course, but for the moment the big issue is locating the prime cause of the European debacle.

It is not so difficult. Indeed, you might say it remains as visible as a Kentucky harvest moon on a cloudless night. It is also true that while statistics can sometimes take us away from the heart of the issue they do not on this occasion.

The old guard of Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington produced a combined total of two-and-a-half points. Faldo's wildcard picks, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey, delivered five and the rookies Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Oliver Wilson produced six and a half. Any need for more searching analysis tends to dwindle here because it surely has to be rooted in the fact that if Faldo had produced a combination of effortless charm and knife-edge passion, rather than about as much natural grace as Fred Flintstone, he would still have been lost without serious hope.

The most biting criticism of Faldo is that he never carried the team with him until they all filed in for the inquest.

Everyone attached to the team denies this, to the extent that Jose Maria Olazabal replied "bullshit" to a reporter who had the nerve to ask Faldo how it felt, as the owner of such a brilliant Ryder Cup playing record, to be in charge of a team that, but for a few honourable exceptions, collapsed before our eyes.

Faldo is also charged with the same critical error as his predecessor Mark James in 1999 and American Curtis Strange in 2002 of loading up his strength at a point where there was a strong likelihood the contest would already be settled.

Yet all of this resides in the imprecise region of fancy theory. Where reality was, as always, was out on the course, as it is on the pitch or the track or the ring. And on the course, if you took away a minority of the Europeans, there was a huge and embarrassing gap between the intensity and the performance of the two teams.

Skilfully, the winning captain Paul Azinger had attacked the problem of American underachievement by extending his choice of players – and packing his team with characters he knew would relish the fight.

In the wake of European failure, the need for such an adjustment of selection screams out now that the Americans have achieved a new sense of what the Ryder Cup can mean to a new generation of leading players.

Faldo had two picks and Poulter brilliantly confirmed the fact that, if it remains true his patron could probably have caused upheaval at the Last Supper, he knows, probably better than any of his contemporaries, what it takes to be a natural-born winner.

It meant that there were times here over the last few days when we witnessed not so much a Ryder Cup captain's defeat but something of a personal tragedy. It was certainly impossible to forget that few superb sportsmen had ever built for themselves quite such a residue of resentment as the man who was now so desperately trying to reinvent himself as one of the boys, an ageing, somewhat eccentric and a socially hapless one, no doubt, but still one of the boys. You couldn't forget, either, that when he sent a letter of encouragement to the team of Mark James it was promptly thrown into a rubbish bin.

By Sunday night the effect of Faldo's failed attempt to heal such old wounds, and represent himself in such a new and radical way, was painfully visible. He was the thrusting kid from Welwyn Garden City going on 90. He talked about the fine margins of defeat when everyone else was thinking slaughter; one though, it is true, that only became apparent near the end of a Ryder Cup which had reinstated so much of the drama lost in the almost formal European victories.

Yet even in his defeat, one that he will no doubt wrestle with for many years, if not the rest of his life, there was a strange and somewhat poignant continuity in the story of someone who as a boy declared that he had an overriding ambition to become a golf machine – and who achieved it to the extent of standing head and shoulders above any of his countrymen. That he will be judged a failure as a Ryder Cup captain is beyond doubt but then, if there is any justice, it might also be allowed that because of that quality which made him such an outstanding competitor he saw, as did Azinger with perhaps a wider greater clarity, that the patterns of the Ryder Cup had to be changed.

The old glory boys, he guessed with what turned out to be some considerable insight, might well have milked their success to pretty much the last drops. He needed some new drive, fresh appetite, and even as he scurried about Valhalla on Sunday afternoon, his last hopes draining away, there was still the vindication of Poulter, the protégé he chose in the face of a gale of protest, doing what he used to do, winning matches in that way which rejects every consideration but the overpowering one of getting the win.

Poulter got four of them and on the way mirrored the best of the American effort. Poulter was aflame in the way that Anthony Kim was when he obliterated Sergio Garcia. There was a rage about these golfers, a determination to succeed that turned a tournament that some of us had begun to suspect had become a comfort zone for those who had not felt the kind of exhilaration of Faldo and, supremely, Woods, of winning the great tournaments.

That, after his epic year, was a charge that could not be levelled against the desperately underperforming Padraig Harrington, but if you wanted to see the future of the Ryder Cup it was surely in the ferocious play of a Kim or a Poulter.

For Faldo this might not be anything like the satisfaction he craved when he landed here with his bullish talk and his histrionic style. The defeat, indeed, is a terrible blemish on a career which he always tried to align with the stars. However, his responsibility has to be limited.

Some say that it was his job to create a feeling of well-being, and that a crucial mistake was not to bring along the extremely clubbable Darren Clarke.

Yet, really, what does this say about the fighting mettle of Europe's greatest golfers, men who have been feted so long for the glory they achieved in places like Michigan and Co Kildare? It says that they may have removed themselves a little from the imperatives of competition, the need to prove something every time they step up to the first tee.

Such ferocity of desire was not, it has to be said, so visible here in the bluegrass country. It resided almost exclusively on the faces of the Americans. We have to say almost, because you could also see it in Ian Poulter and the man who put so much faith in his urge to win.

There was another forlorn distinction for the captain of Europe. No one in the history of the Ryder Cup had probably hurt so much at the moment of his defeat.