John Huggan: Prickly Faldo swings towards diplomacy as previously hidden wit hits the fans on US TV

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AS PAUL Azinger not so long ago demonstrated, labelling his erstwhile commentating colleague and now opposing Ryder Cup captain "a prick", it has never been hard to portray the currently multi-tasking and formerly monosyllabic Nick Faldo as something less than warm and fuzzy.

Throughout his distinguished playing career, the now 50-year-old Englishman rarely enjoyed the best of relations with either the watching public or his contemporaries in the enormously competitive world of professional golf.

Spectators grudgingly admired but never loved him; the other players almost unanimously loathed him.

By way of perfect example, at a now far-off World Match Play Championship, a misguided spectator threw Faldo's ball back on to Wentworth's 16th green during a closely contested encounter with Australian Graham Marsh. En route to the next tee, another member of the gallery loudly berated the Englishman for a perceived lack of sportsmanship after Faldo had failed to offer his opponent a half. It was almost, wrote the late, great Observer columnist, Peter Dobereiner, the first recorded golfing instance of the "fan hitting the shit".

There were other incidents, many less than savoury. Representing England against Ireland in a Dunhill Cup at St Andrews, Faldo refused to play his approach from the Old Course's 18th fairway because he claimed that the green was all but invisible through a thick Scottish haar.

"Get on with it you plonker!" yelled a wag from the unsympathetic crowd that was soon enough slow handclapping. But Faldo, typically, was unmoved. When play resumed the next morning, a banner was hanging from a window in Hamilton Hall, the student residence behind golf's most famous closing hole: "Hit it here Nick."

As for those Faldo methodically defeated over and over again, not many have much good to say about the man former Open champion Mark Calcavecchia famously damned with the line: "Playing with Nick is like playing alone – only slower."

But they hide it well. Most take refuge in empty platitudes designed to disguise their lasting antipathy for a man whose on-course intensity was but a brief daily break from his terminal social ineptitude.

"I recognised that I had a finite time period in which I could really commit myself to the game," says Faldo in justification. "I always said to myself that I wanted to get to 45 and look back knowing I gave it everything. I never wanted to wonder whether I could have tried harder. And I did give it everything. Now I hopefully have lots of time to do other things. I certainly have nothing to apologise for."

At least superficially, however, things have moved on. Reborn as the lead commentator for both the Golf Channel and CBS in the United States, Faldo's previously taciturn image has been replaced by a stream of verbal one-liners occasionally (but not always) delivered with something akin to comedic timing.

He can still be an awkward devil though, as he proved the other day during an excruciating press conference at Wentworth. Seated next to an uncomfortable looking George O'Grady, executive director of the European Tour, Faldo was back to his worst in dealing with the media. Question after question went half answered as the six-time major champion reverted to previous type. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pain in the you-know-where.

Later, ensconced in a more intimate meeting with half a dozen Sunday newspaper journalists, Faldo was more forthcoming, although not much. Just about his only moment of real animation came in his explanation of just how his more senior players could help out any Ryder Cup rookies. Which is perhaps not surprising. One of the greater ironies about Faldo is the close relationship he seems to enjoy with many of the younger lads vying for spots on his team.

"That's where the senior players let their guards down – for the rookies," he gushed. "It's really important to have them feeling part of it all. They need to feel good. And they get to watch and see how the senior guys react to certain situations. The last thing they need or want to see is panic. Peter Oosterhuis was my 'wing man' in my debut back in 1977. Then I had the same role with Monty and, later, Lee Westwood. I told him I'd take the bullets and he should just go and play. It took him nine holes to loosen up, then he let rip. I watched his back and let him play as aggressively as he wanted to. It worked."

None of the above – both good and bad – comes as any surprise to former Ryder Cup player Ken Brown, who has known Faldo since the pair were teenagers playing for Hertfordshire.

"The players he competed against know him only as the cut-throat competitor," says the Scot, now a commentator for the BBC and Setanta. "He was trying to beat those players; he's trying to help the younger guys. With the older guys, it seems to be they can never forget long ago slights and little insults. None of which will matter in his role as captain.

"Nick has always done things his own way. Whatever he needed to do to get the best out of himself and beat the others, he did it. That's what golf is all about. And it worked. So why would he do something different? OK, he might not have been the type of guy to pat you on the back and say, 'well done last week'. I'm sure that never crossed his mind. Social niceties were lost on him. He was thinking about himself and his game. Now he's playing a team game on television and he is a different person. He's highly respected and quite right too."

As for the current progress of his captaincy and the potential make-up of his team, Faldo seems content.

"Things are going very well," he claimed recently. "We are looking at six to eight guys who have been there before and four to six rookies. Change has to happen. But there are 24 guys vying for the 12 spots. So it's very competitive. I'm in what I call 'observation mode' at the moment. I will step that up from the Open (which he will miss this year for the first time since 1975] onwards, when I get closer to having to make my two picks. I've made my assessment of the course and what I think will be important there. But I see no point in tipping our hand. We can't be complacent. The Americans will be coming strong this time."