By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000
PALM HARBOR -- Nick Faldo was Britain's most accomplished 20th century golfer. We can argue that, but I like my evidence: six major championships.
To me, over the past quarter-century, the sport's highest global achievers have been Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, a still-escalating Tiger Woods and this complex, grinding English bloke with the elegant, imposing name Nicholas Alexander Faldo. Always arguable.
Faldo lives near Orlando, but Florida's west coast is about to get its first tournament glimpse of the 6-foot-3 athlete. From a historic perspective, Nicky is the kingfish name among 144 pros who today christen the Tampa Bay Classic, our newest big-time sports jewel.
"My game is turning around nicely," Faldo said. "I've got a different outlook -- still the old intensity, but in new ways. I really struggled for a while. It's tough when you can't put your finger on the problem. It was a lot of technical things."
Faldo's skills have wobbled. He ranked 163rd in PGA Tour money in 1998, then 151st last year. In 2000, this is Nicky's 14th start on American grass. He has one top-10 finish, but it is a beaut, seventh at the U.S. Open. Faldo sits 138th in earnings at $271,687. Even so, his game has shown an upturn on the American and European tours.
On the personal front, Nick's life has been a multiplicity of marriages, divorces, fiancees and relocations. His children (ages 14, 11, 7) live with ex-wife Gill in England.
But at 43, there is competitive spunk in Faldo's eyes, a fresh rev to his golfing engine.
He has more perspective than ever.
"Everything has changed," Faldo said after taking some practice whacks at the Copperhead course. "I'm not saying I'm different, but you should get smarter as you get older, being able to better use your time and energy.
"I work at golf with about as much spirit as ever, but methods have been adjusted. I used to hit 1,500 balls a day, especially during the period when I was changing my swing. But now a lot of the old smacking has been replaced by better analysis.
"Golf is not my No. 1 priority now. I have a fiancee with whom there is a great relationship. I'm excited about my course design business. We're based in London but are aiming for projects from Finland to Australia."
He has won three Masters and three British Opens. "Finishing on top at a major gets harder as a golfer gets older," he said. "You keep hoping it can all click again, like in '90 at St. Andrews and '92 at Muirfield. Those were (British) Opens where I showed up thinking I was absolutely the man, then went out and proved it by winning."
Such talk, such confidence, such accomplishment lead to an obvious contemporary subject: Woods, an extraordinary 24-year-old Californian/Floridian who this year has ruled the U.S. Open, PGA Championship and British Open.
"That attitude I enjoyed a couple of times, well, Tiger has it every time he begins a competition," Faldo said, knowing Woods may not only prohibit him from winning another major, but perhaps even the Orlando city championship. Tiger resides across town at Isleworth. Woods has five majors. Faldo, a stubborn traditionalist not easily convinced, is unquestionably awed by Woods.
"With the depth of talent in today's golf, even the most gifted player must have tremendous drive and determination," Faldo said. "You think Tiger doesn't incredibly push himself, even if in secret? He's the whole mental/physical package. The hardest part is keeping focus. He's also been amazing at that."
Nick was 14 when he saw Nicklaus play on television. Faldo was intrigued. He put away soccer and rugby balls and began learning a golf swing. Jack was the all-time epitome. Champion of 18 professional majors. But by now, the savvy eyes of Faldo see something more amazing in the ever-developing Woods.
"Golf has become a physical sport," Nick said. "Tiger keeps creating new levels of accomplishment, shaping his mind, game and body to not match Nicklaus but to become something even better.
"I had a good imagination when I was younger, but I never even dreamed that anyone could put together the explosive golf elements that we now see from Tiger. He has raised standards, making every tour player better.
"Look at the fellows on this (Tampa Bay Classic) practice tee; you know yesterday's barriers have been amazingly bumped up. Ten years ago, the idea of hitting drives 320 yards, in the fairway, was just fantasy. We knew nothing about biomechanics. Tiger Woods created many new realities, making all of us know we could do more with our clubs."
Tiger won't be at the Tampa Bay Classic. He's busy at the President's Cup, seeking more worldly acclaim. Watch that one on TV. For up-close involvement, give Faldo and the chaps at Innisbrook a strong look.
It's been too long since a legitimate PGA Tour stop adorned this area. Not the seniors. Not the old JCPenney mixed-gender tournament. These are the young studs, the Tiger chasers. With the astonishing depth of 21st-century golf, the Tampa Bay Classic field is exceptional, even minus the U.S. and international aces who are spending the weekend Cupping with Woods.
Don't miss Nick Faldo.