Nicola Taylor, Daniel Gale and Amy Taylor savour a photo op with Sir Nick Faldo ahead of the Faldo Series European Grand Final at Al Ain.
By Kent Gray
Sir Nick Faldo pauses momentarily as he reflects on the 21st anniversary of his globe-trotting junior development series.
“It’s been quite a good journey, yeah,” the 60-year-old golfing knight turned commentary box royal says with a hearty dollop of English understatement.
The Faldo Junior Series has indeed come a long way – 40 events in 30 countries annually to be exact – since the six-time major champion created the non-profit organisation in 1996 to give back to a sport that has given him so much. Among the talented youngsters identified and nurtured along the way have been major champions Rory McIlroy and Yani Tseng, plus tour winners Nick Dougherty, Oliver Fisher, Marc Warren, John Parry, Rashid Khan, Melissa Reid, Florentyna Parker and Carly Booth.
You can bet a handful of the 57 names on this week’s 21st Faldo Series European Grand Final leaderboard will emerge from Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club as future stars too after benefitting from the unique combination of tough tournament examinations and lashings of expert advice.
From his home in Orlando, Faldo himself has come along way this week to host in Abu Dhabi. He’s brought sports psychologist Kjell Enhager with him, a man Faldo admits he could have done with during his playing days when he feared his mental fortitude might be exposed if he didn’t hide behind that famously aloof “blinkers on from the first tee to the 18th green” exterior.
“Kjell did a great presentation talking about the mind, how to visualise, how to make decisions, how to practice better, how to get yourself in the right mental state,” said Faldo. “It was a real good eye opener for them, they’re getting some good stuff from us.”
The learning, it seems, is a two-way thing.
“When we started [in 1996] you didn’t really appreciate all the differences but when you take European kids to say Asia and they get thrown in the deep end and suddenly they have to learn to play golf with an eight hour time change, different grass and you’re going to get sunburnt even when the sun doesn’t even come out, it’s a great learning experience.”
Faldo has been imparting his wisdom too, playing nine practice holes Sunday with some of the starry-eyed youngsters before holding a clinic for AESGC members on Monday morning as the talented teens from Europe, Asia and the UAE [Reema Al Heloo and Rashed Al Emadi] set off on their 54-hole odyssey.
A separate clinic for the players was planned for Monday afternoon and typical of his playing days, Faldo has come prepared, as much as his busy television commitments allow anyway.
“I always come in with some kind of theme to try and give the kids a bit of insight into what and how top sportsmen think, act and react, and how they can test themselves,” Faldo said
Asked for this weeks theme, the serial swing tinkerer of old emerges and makes for a fascinating listen.
“It’s funny I’ve been practicing and I always talk about my ‘four swing”, I mean I had one backswing and four different follow throughs to hit different shots,” says Faldo, clearly just warming up.
“When you play less you go right to what has to happen, the absolute musts, so if you’re trying to hit the ball high, what do you have to do to make it happen, how do you release the club? If you want to hit it low, if you want to hit a fade, hit a draw…and I’ve been doing that myself from the same stance basically, and then you learn to make minute differences and how to feel the differences and then what happens when you make the differences.
“You know, if you make some kind of difference in your swing, where does the golf ball go and if it goes consistently in a certain direction, can you use that as a positive, in a way to use it on the golf course?”
Just as he’s making a huge difference to the careers of all those involved at Al Ain this week, so too is Faldo playing the mutual appreciation game.
“It’s great, a great spot,” the CBS analyst says of AESGC . “Obviously this time of year its perfect. To try and go as late as possible in the season as we do, I mean you struggle in central Europe, it’s too cold. We’ve been to Loch Lomond where it’s blowing 40 miles an hour and it’s 40°f (5°c), it snowed in the Greenbrier and well, they’ve got a treat here. They’re in nice breezy conditions in the low 80s (27°c), it’s going to be a good test for them.”
The first day scoring showed many are up to the test with England’s Charlie Salter and Australian Daniel Gale leading the way with four under 66s. In all, 11 players bettered par.
With the backing of the R&A, World Amateur Golf Ranking points and trips to next year’s Asia Grand Final – Faldo will invite three boys and two girls to the event at his Faldo Design course in Vietnam, Laguna Lang Co, in March – on the line, there is still much to play for.
Regardless of the scoring this week, the chance to glean tips of the trade from Europe’s most majored golfer is a priceless opportunity. The journey – for both Faldo and his juniors – continues.