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Nick Has a Knack for Success

Tiger Woods and 143 of his closest friends teed off at the 72nd L.A. Open--now called the Nissan Open--Thursday. I didn’t catch all their names, but a couple of them missed the whole point.

Payne Stewart, for example, the beknickered holdover from the Bobby Jones-Harry Vardon era of golf, shot a six-under-par 65. So did Scott Hoch. Mark O’Meara jump-started a little 67. So did Frank Lickliter, whoever he is.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 01, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 1, 1997 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 9 Sports Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Golf--Nick Faldo is not the only foreign player to have won the Masters three times, as reported in Friday’s editions. Gary Player of South Africa won the tournament in 1961, ’74 and ’78.

Freddy Couples, to the surprise of nobody, weighed in with a nifty 69. Freddy plays Riviera as if it were his private pool table.

But the news of the day was that the Tiger was flirting with being an endangered species. He started fast, shooting birdies on the first two holes, and visions of course and tournament records began dancing in everyone’s head.

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But to the dismay of his swollen galleries, Tiger had to go into a clinch with the course. It fought back, causing him to cover up from time to time and give ground.

He finished with a respectable 70 and the likelihood that he won’t miss the cut--to the intense relief of the tournament sponsors, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the print media, several assorted television stations and, maybe even the hot dog stands around the course, to say nothing of the golfing public.

A tournament without Tiger Woods is a day without sunshine, a meal without wine, a dance with your sister.

It is not a new phenomenon, golf turning into a one-man show, a tournament into a parade. It was not so long ago that Monday headlines used to read “Palmer Loses Open To Unknown,” or “Daly Three-Putts 18 To Lose PGA.” A golf tournament is a very parochial thing. It tends to be a monarchy.

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This course saw Ben Hogan in his prime. Also Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. The ghosts of the past rustle through the eucalyptus at Riviera. This is no municipal track in West Texas, a pitch-and-putt in South Florida. This is no drive-and-an-eight-iron walk in the park.

Some legends are in the Tiger hunt here this week too. Tom Watson, who has won here twice, and won the British Open no fewer than five times, is keeping the leaders in his sights with a thinking man’s 67.

But just when the ’96 L.A. Open seemed to be descending into a no-name shootout among Paul Goydos, Don Pooley, Lickliter and other Who-dats? of the tour, along came an old familiar silhouette.

“The world’s best golfer,” as some esoteric computer yardsticks like to dub him, had soft-shoed his way into Tiger Woods’ spotlight. The Right Honourable Nicholas Alexander Faldo of Her Majesty’s golf corps.

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You have to fear Nick Faldo on a golf course. The imperturbable Brit shocked the universe last year when he teed it up for the final round of the Masters six shots behind Greg Norman. Then he won by five.

You can see our Nick from Blighty is no man to have in your rear-view mirror. That was his third Masters victory. No foreigner had ever won that many. Faldo also won three--count ‘em--British Opens, was in a playoff for the ’88 U.S. Open title and won 31 other tournaments worldwide. He honors every tournament he enters. He also wins a lot of them. He has won five times on the American tour.

Faldo teed it up at Riviera this week because he is a great admirer of the course.

British golfers appreciate a degree of difficulty. The winds off the North Sea do it for them. The elephant grass, narrow fairways and uncertain greens of Riviera are an acceptable substitute.

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Faldo, like Norman, is unquestionably an athlete. A little over 6 feet 3, 200 pounds, it’s not hard to imagine him in the prize ring or on the wing for Wolverhampton.

His game had a certain methodical un-Americanism about it. No Arnold Palmer, Faldo often seemed to take the safe way to the hole. He once won a British Open playing deliberate par golf.

Now, in the linkslands of Scotland, that may be the better part of valor. But in the United States, par doesn’t always make the cut, never mind win the cup.

Still, Faldo can adjust his game--and attitude--to fit the conditions. He won at Doral with 19 under par once. His 276 at Augusta last year was 12 under. Nicky can go for the pin if he has to.

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He went for the pin at Riviera on Thursday.

“Of course, I attacked the course,” he said testily later. “Five under par is aggressive enough, isn’t it?”

You don’t win any tournament in the first round, much less one at Riviera. A leaderboard on Thursday can change so radically by Saturday night that you often ask, “Where is everybody?”

Riviera has been taken by Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Tommy Bolt and Lloyd Mangrum in its heyday. It’s also been taken by Doug Tewell, T.C. Chen and David Edwards.

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Tiger Woods would probably be the public choice by acclamation. But the public gets no vote in the kingdom of golf.

Faldo is one of the few players on tour who can step into the press room and not be asked immediately, “What is your impression of Tiger Woods?”

Faldo is royalty in his own right. He’ll take a lot of beating. His name would look good on the pantheon of Riviera winners. “Faldo will not beat himself,” is the watchword in Europe.

He has a four-shot lead on Tiger going into Round 2. He trails Payne Stewart by one.

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For a man who bested Greg Norman by 11 shots in a single day, holding that line should be a tap-in. We may have our Tiger, but the Brits have their Nick the Lionhearted.


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