Sir Nick Faldo: The reason I do not want Jon Rahm to win the Masters

Sir Nick Faldo
Sir Nick Faldo comes out of retirement to commentate on this year's Masters for the UK audience - David Davies/PA

Asked to choose a favourite Champions Dinner in 35 years of wearing the Green Jacket, Sir Nick Faldo plumps without hesitation for his own. “My fish and chips,” he says, almost salivating at the memory of his 1997 meal, which he paired with tomato soup. “I flew in the fillets from Harry Ramsden’s with these big chips. I had the Sarson’s vinegar as well. It was very successful. Everybody loved that.”

His pride is self-evident. And yet, given that he also introduced his American guests that night to the dubious fluoro-green delights of mushy peas, it seems about as plausible a boast as the time he claimed Peter Jacobson had called him the funniest Englishman since John Cleese.

At 66, Faldo remains impervious to self-doubt. And on the subject of his worst dinner with his fellow Masters winners, he is equally emphatic. “Oh, it was Bubba Watson, wasn’t it? When we had Chuck E Cheese: the little hamburger, with a little corn and a little ice cream. I think we had a milkshake, too, instead of a chianti.”

Disdainful as this might sound, it should be said that Faldo was equally withering at the time, describing Watson’s 2013 offering as a McDonald’s-style “Happy Meal”. So much for Anglo-American relations. To think, Watson has even said how much he is looking forward to the latest gathering on Tuesday night at Augusta’s clubhouse, free of the awkward questions that followed his defection to LIV. Now he might be tempted to ask why Faldo is portraying him as some redneck without a palate.

Faldo, in idyllic semi-retirement at his ranch in Montana, offers his opinions more rarely than during his 16 years as lead golf analyst on CBS. He was an often fearless commentator in that period, memorably torching a “useless” Sergio García for a “bad attitude” at the 2008 Ryder Cup, which he had lost as captain. For his return behind the microphone this week on Sky Sports, he gives little sense of wanting to hold back, especially on all matters LIV. He has been a consistent critic of the Saudi-bankrolled breakaway, once calling it “meaningless”. The same scepticism rushes to the surface when he starts talking about Jon Rahm.

Nick Faldo and Butch Harmon
Sir Nick returns to Sky Sports for the Masters this week, alongside Butch Harmon (left) - Sky Sports

The Spaniard might be the defending champion but his preparation, since jumping ship to LIV last December for £450 million, has been modest. Where Rahm headed to Augusta last time on the back of three PGA Tour victories in three months, he has yet to win in four 54-hole events this year, against far more limited opposition. “I’m not too sure – apart from one reason – why he went to LIV,” Faldo says, with a knowing grin.

“Being a competitor, it can’t be deemed the same, can it? These events are on resort courses, without the atmosphere or intensity. At the Masters, you’re thrown in at the deep end, and it’s always good to have played under full intensity. That’s what the best players are doing: picking the right events, testing themselves, having the majors as their priority. I bet he watched the Players Championship last month, when Scottie Scheffler came through, and thought: ‘I wish I was one of them.’”

There is an alternative explanation of why Faldo is downplaying Rahm’s chances. After all, he still belongs to perhaps the most exclusive club in golf, as one of only three people ever to win back-to-back Green Jackets, a feat he accomplished in 1990. The other two are Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Rahm, for his part, admitted recently to missing the ability to defend the titles he won at Riviera, La Quinta and Kapalua, adding extra piquancy to his Augusta defence. But his quest for consecutive triumphs is one Faldo hopes will be thwarted. “Oh, I hope he misses defending. I like my little club of three. I was second to Jack, having been inspired by Jack. Then Tiger is obviously in every record book. I’m not pulling against him, but I’d like it to stay at three.”

Nick Faldo
Nick Faldo beats Ray Floyd at the second hole of their play-off to win successive Masters in 1990 - David Cannon/ALLSPORT

Rory McIlroy’s one desire, by contrast, is to break his Masters hex. Closing in on a decade since his Open triumph at Hoylake delivered a third leg of the career Grand Slam, the four-time major champion is still waiting to prevail on the course that most suits his metronomic driving and towering iron play. It is one of the truly mystifying fallow periods in golf, and Faldo is not shy of administering some tough love.

“Rory’s short irons are his major issue,” he says. “He’s one of the greatest drivers of the ball, and then he stands up with a wedge and we all cringe. If Butch Harmon can help him with that, then that’s probably all he needs to do.” McIlroy, reliant on his swing coach Michael Bannon since he was eight years old, has been seeking a second opinion from Harmon – the guru behind Woods’ first eight major wins – on how to eradicate the flaws in his approach play.

But with McIlroy and the Masters, there is psychological scar tissue, too. He was so disgusted by his missed cut last year that he scarpered without saying a word to journalists, incapable of discussing the subject until several weeks later. “The problem is that time has gone by,” Faldo explains. “It has been nearly 10 years since his last major. It is the trust factor, self-belief, whatever you want to call it. He has asked himself, ‘Can I re-set, forget the past and who I am?’ But it’s not that easy.

“Everybody says, ‘I wish I could play like I was 18 again.’ But can you delete all the negativity you have seen and felt. That feeling is probably worse than what you are seeing. Can he start again fresh? Maybe there is a way – I wouldn’t put it past him. He has pulled himself off all the policy boards, trying just to be a golfer again. And 35 is still a great age to be at. He is fit, one of the technically strongest players ever. So he could yet find a way. The mental part is the one.”

Faldo was sharply critical of McIlroy’s decision last April to allow a TV reporter to interview him during the first round as he strode up the ninth fairway, accusing him of not focusing on the task at hand. Time, clearly, has not softened that verdict. “I thought, ‘You’re kidding me, the Masters?’ That is one of the most beautiful things about the tournament: inside the ropes, it’s just you, your caddie and the other players. Suddenly to bring other people in? You need 100 per cent concentration. You have a window as an athlete – just look after yourself. You have tons of time once you have stopped playing to do all the other stuff.”

Faldo’s selfishness, it was often said, was his superpower. Could he even have dreamt of six major titles without his capacity for playing the loner, for retreating into such a bubble of concentration on the course that he was labelled a cold fish? The affable Rory is cut from different cloth, with a more giving and gregarious nature. But Faldo’s analysis leaves little doubt that if McIlroy is ever to earn an invitation to those Champions Dinner soirees, he urgently needs to start putting himself first.

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