Thursday, March 21, 2002

What It Really Takes

Watching the Players Championship this afternoon, I was struck by how well Nick Faldo was swinging. He hit a perfect four iron into one green and a lovely 122-yard pitching wedge into another (and made both putts for birdies). He must have hit a bunch of other good shots as well; as darkness fell and play was suspended, Faldo stood at 4-under par, one shot off the lead.

About five years ago, I began noodling around with a book proposal that was called What It Really Takes. The title was a direct steal from Richard Ben Cramer, whose book What It Takes remains the seminal work of modern American political journalism. The idea was basically the same. Cramer looked at six candidates running for president in 1988 and asked: (1) what does it take to do that, and (2) in the doing of it, what does it take from them? My book was going to be about three or four professional golfers and it would ask Cramer's two questions plus one more: What does it take to do it when you know you don't have what it takes anymore?

I read a great deal about golf and talked to many people familiar with life on the Professional Tour and inexorably, I was led to Nick Faldo, whose Ahabian quest for golf perfection has been both awesome and awful. From 1989 through about 1993, he was easily the best player in the game and in 1996, on that Sunday at Augusta, he lifted himself up from a disappointing Saturday round and played one of the great rounds in golf history to defeat Greg Norman and capture his 3rd Masters Championship. Faldo's cut 212-yard two-iron from a steep hook lie to the 13th green remains one of the great pressure golf shots of all time.

After that, in what seemed like no time, he couldn't make a cut and he couldn't make a putt. And as disappointment piled on top of disappointment, you could almost see him unravelling. It was Faldo, more than any of the others (I had started research files on seven other players) who seemed to be living and dying with this incredibly hard third question: What does it take to keep at it when you know, or at least sense, that you no longer have what it takes? And what does that mean?

I never finished the book proposal. Other things came up -- jobs, projects, columns, kids and eventually, two dogs. One of whom we named Faldo. Watching Nick Faldo on television this afternoon I could have sworn it was 1992 again. He had that long swing going and the bearing of his former self. On a couple of the par 5s, he chose not to go for the green in two and instead laid up to an easy wedge yardage. One of the TV commentators noted that back in the early 1990s, it was these wedge approach shots that Faldo invariably did better than anyone else in the game. On par 5s, he almost always left himself a make-able birdie putt. And so it was today.

I hope he has a great tournament. I don't suspect he'll win, but I hope he has at least as good a finish as he did at the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach. It would be nice to know that there's someone out there who has what it takes even though, realistically, he doesn't.