James Lawton: Poulter brilliance brings solace to Faldo amid bitter pain of defeat
Published 22/09/2008 | 09:34
For Nick Faldo the truth stretched out long and with almost exquisite pain in the heat and the tension of the bluegrass afternoon.
Against the odds that many will always insist he built up against himself with reckless arrogance and so much of a career-long insistence that he would always know best, he submitted, stroke by stroke, to the American belief that it was time they got their hands on the Ryder Cup once again.
In the final devastating act, when Faldo's judgement – and his last rating as a combatant at the top of the game – faced its ultimate test, there was maybe just one comfort for the best, most calculating golfer ever bred in Europe.
It was that he had a surrogate, an alter ego if you like, who had won a little glory even as Faldo, the beaten captain. was being led into the dock.
His name is, of course, Ian Poulter and his achievement has been to insist that such as Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and the absent Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke give up a little room in the pantheon of Ryder Cup heroes.
Also, and you could see it plainly enough when Faldo embraced him after he had won his fourth straight point in the cause that had looked to be lost the moment Garcia could not disguise the fact he had no answer to the power and the authority of young Anthony Kim in the opening singles match, that here was, for the foreseeable future, probably the most dynamic candidate to lead a European drive to regain some of their old competitive edge in South Wales in two years' time.
There was another point to be made on behalf of the European captain who suddenly looked the loneliest man not just in the state of Kentucky but possibly the entire world.
It was that if Faldo had a run a gauntlet of criticism almost from the moment of his appointment two years ago, he had recognised in Poulter someone who could bring fresh life to some jaded – and maybe complacent – ranks. He had also reminded everybody that he still knew something about the game in which he once made himself such a force.
He was not, after all, just a time-expired relic from the years of old glory.
That was the crushing verdict of much of the golfing establishment last Friday evening when Faldo shook it to the core with his announcement that Garcia and Westwood would miss the resumption of action, the Saturday morning foursomes.
Former European captains Tony Jacklin and Bernard Gallagher were among those administering a thumbs-down verdict – and Faldo's American counterpart Paul Azinger was said to be jubilant.
But with Europe slogging their way back into contention and Poulter the fist-pumping activator in chief as they came into the final drama of the singles a mere two points down – the same margin they made up in their brilliant recovery in Rochester, New York, 13 years ago – there was some sharp revisionism in the television booths and the best placed tables in the finest Louisville eateries.
Jacklin led the reappraisal as Faldo moved among his troops when they gathered to watch Garcia open their challenge – and it could scarcely be revoked just because the Spanish virtuoso was soon being stripped bare by his younger opponent.
Said Jacklin: "I knew Nick was very nervous coming here and I know how much importance he has attached to his responsibilities over the last two years, and while I haven't agreed with all his decisions, including the ones he made yesterday, I have really respected his approach – also, right now, you look at his contribution and you cannot honestly say he has been wrong."
Faldo's former Ryder Cup team-mate Peter Oosterhuis, now a leading TV analyst in America, declared, "When I played with Nick he never needed any baby-sitting. It was just a case of saying, 'Nice shot, Nick, well played – things like that'.
"I didn't agree with his decision to give a wild-card spot to Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke, but just look how it has turned out. Poulter has been Europe's most important player, he's shown himself a leader, a tough guy."
Yet such generous estimates of Faldo's work were plainly imperilled as the Americans rolled to their first victory since the jingoistic outpouring at the Brookline Country Club in 1999.
Back in Rochester in 1995 Faldo wrote himself a stirring chapter in Ryder Cup history when he overhauled US Open champion Curtis Strange over the last two holes of their vital singles.
When he won the point, Faldo sniffed, "Ah well, it was just a smelly little putt". For all of European golf, though, it had the aroma of a Tuscan rose garden.
Here, though, the odour of this defeat will linger less fragrantly around the image of Faldo.
Yet, defiantly, he made the point that everyone had fought hard and when it came down to the last analysis Europe were short of one player hard enough to hold up the Americans until the final three matches which he had packed with proven experience.
After all the controversy of his selection, Poulter's reward for emerging as Europe's most reliable – and forceful – performer was to play the 10th game – the one which the captain thought would signal a final push to the winning line. Faldo's calculation was that his men could stay in contention – while preventing the Americans surging to their winning mark of 141/2 points – until Europe brought on the formidable burying party of Poulter, Westwood and, finally, Padraig Harrington.
Poulter was the key to Faldo's overall strategy and, here at least, his judgement was not found to be wanting – a fact underlined when the man from Hitchin gained his fourth point out of a possible five with a 3 and 2 win over Steve Stricker.
In Poulter Faldo saw someone utterly negligent of all those niceties that are not to do with the fundamentals of playing in a way guaranteed to inflame and unsettle an opponent.
Here, though, it has to be said that Poulter has shown a talent that the young Faldo often found elusive if not impossible.
Despite the rush of adrenaline and what must have been an overwhelming desire to lash back at his critics, Poulter has managed generally to say the right thing. He said, "It's been a difficult week but the support the guys have given me has been great."
The new hero did allow himself a small step towards hubris when he said, "I do seem to have been able to come up with the right putt at the right time and I'm delighted to have been able to make a contribution."
It was not enough, of course, and it never looked likely to be once a young, fresh American team announced that it was time for the legends of European golf to take a sharper look at themselves. For all Faldo's lunges of tactics and ill-considered talk, this perhaps had always been the belief of the man who walked, quite alone, into the southland night. For that at least, he deserved some nod of recognition. However, he could spend the rest of his life waiting for the comfort of its glow.