The Open: Golden oldies a hit with fans

Sir Nick Faldo looks serious as he sizes up a putt, but he also found time to engage in some banter with spectators. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sir Nick Faldo looks serious as he sizes up a putt, but he also found time to engage in some banter with spectators. Picture: Jane Barlow
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They were counted out and they were counted back in again nearly five hot, sweaty hours later, which, given their venerability, was perhaps the best that they could have hoped for.

However, this was not any old group. This was the golden oldies trio, a golf heritage group that boasted a total of 15 majors between them.

If it was rock music, they would be classed as the ageing supergroup who had got together in the knowledge that nearly everyone is partial to a blast of nostalgia. For Crosby, Stills & Nash, read Watson, Faldo & 
Couples.

At Muirfield, of course, they are suckers for tradition, although what might be their take on the scarlet-coloured glove that Tom Watson, 63, wore as he began his round?

Watson eventually tore it off and signed for a more-than-decent score of 75, four over par. Couples finished on the same mark, while Faldo was four shots worse off.

You had to feel for Fred Couples, the youngest – at a mere 53 years old – in the trio made up by Watson and Sir Nick. There are four new electronic score information boards that are placed in strategic positions around the course, and they flash up information on each player as they prepare to play the nearby hole.

Part of this “greatest hits” package includes their best three Open finishes, which, for multiple winners Watson and Faldo, came up as three No 1s (although, of course, Watson has five Open titles in total).

Poor old Fred. The man they call Boom Boom was made to seem very much the poor relation with his wretched record of a couple of third places, and a fourth. When it comes to the sharing out of majors, Couples must defer to his colleagues again. Watson leads the way with eight, while Faldo is a six-times winner. Couples has only a measly Masters to his name. Truly, it was a case of the knight, the prince and the pauper.

Fortunately, the heat had not risen to mercury-shattering levels while they were out, although it was sticky enough. Watson looked particularly frazzled as he hirpled down the fairways, although you wouldn’t know it by his execution – a birdie at the par-4 11th was followed by four successive pars. With just a little more touch around the greens, he could easily have shot par – at least.

The love Watson felt from the galleries acted to boost his energy levels. They strode like three old gunslingers up towards the green at the 16th hole, where a large group of spectators had gathered to make use of the excellent vantage point offered by the greenside hillock. On a body of water that truly shimmered a little brig silently sat, while Fife looked resplendent beyond.

The majestic moment was broken by a thrawn comment provided by a Scottish voice, one reminding Faldo that the applause “wisnae fir him, it’s fir Tom”.

In truth, Britain’s finest-ever player received a warm reception. It was one he surely deserved given his mastery on this particular links course in days gone by, while there was also the little matter of it being his 56th birthday yesterday.

Even when being upbraided by an official for slow play at the seventh hole, it was described as “a gentle prod”, presumably with some forelock-tugging included: “Excuse me Sir Nick, would you mind awfully upping the tempo just a little bit.”

He later said that he would treasure the memory of looking down the first fairway as he prepared to tee off, and seeing fans in banks of “four or five” by the ropes. It was only 9am. The sun was yet to burn through the clouds, and yet the crowds had been enticed out by the thought of seeing three legends.

Frustratingly for those of us wishing to apply metaphors to their adventures yesterday, the oldsters were not scheduled to finish as the shadows fell and dusk settled across the burnt landscape.

“I hope someone got a happy snap of that from behind the tee,” said Faldo, with reference to the first hole. “Seriously, that was the best view of the day.”

And then, sadly, the golf started. For Faldo, it quickly un-stitched. Not that he was particularly dismayed, and nor was this rustiness surprising given his lack of activity in recent times.

His tee shot at the first hole landed in some light rough to the left, but then it was his first competitive swing in three years. It wasn’t a bad effort – certainly not when compared with the one Lloyd Saltman had shanked just over a couple of hours earlier, and the one Tiger Woods was set to send into the heavy rough. After two bogeys, Faldo steadied himself, with a birdie and three consecutive pars. Two double bogeys, at the 14th and 17th holes, spoiled things slightly, but by then the greens, he noted, were “like glass”. Still, he was glad he had not completely embarrassed himself.

“You know what golfers are like,” said Faldo. “We put our heads down and grind.” This was in response to a question about whether there had been much in the way of conversation between the three greats of the game.

Surprisingly, given the level of intensity he displayed when in his pomp, Faldo needed the least encouragement to engage with the spectators. After connecting healthily with his tee shot at the second hole, he turned to say: “It’s been a while since I heard fizz like that.”

His long game certainly didn’t let him down. Rather, it was his putting. “The long swings were pretty darn good,” Faldo pointed out afterwards. Only once did he give himself real problems, when pulling a 6-iron too far left at the 13th.

There were some flashes of the old magic. “Something special Nick,” someone cried at the 16th green, after Faldo had driven into some difficulty, beyond the green. “I am working on it!” he replied.

When he won this tournament in 1987 and 1992, Faldo needed only pars to win – which he duly achieved.

And here yesterday he managed to re-connect to these old glories, even after landing in the bunker at the front of the 18th green. “That was a hell of a bunker shot, wasn’t it?” an upbeat Faldo said later, after hitting a 9-iron to within three feet of the flag, allowing him to make par again.

Watson had already given it his seal of approval. “That was a bit of class,” he turned to tell his playing partner at the time.

“That made my day,” smiled Faldo later.