Nick Faldo is in his element under the big oak tree at Augusta National.
“He loves all this,” purred the lady who handles his PR. Expensively shod in a pair of $500 Tod’s sneakers, the 55-year old paws the hallowed turf as he contemplates questions about the best known product of his Faldo Junior Series, Rory McIlroy, and the move to Nike he’s dubbed “dangerous” - and unnecessary.
Worth an estimated €40 million according to The Sunday Times Rich List, Faldo is better placed than most to comment on the trials and tribulations of the world number two and the money machine that is modern professional golf. In fact, had he not been divorced three times, Sir Nick would be sitting on a fortune closer to €60m following a career that brought six majors wins, including three green jackets at Augusta.
McIlroy’s bank account is already bulging and having signed a deal with Nike that’s believed to be worth north of €20 million a year, he’s likely to go from 12th place in the list of the UK and Ireland’s richest golfers to first, overtaking Faldo himself.
While Faldo was the subject of withering criticism by Curtis Strange, a Nike endorser, for his comments on McIlroy at the end of last year, the Englishman stands over them and hopes he’s proven wrong by the uber-talented Co Down man.
His problem is not that McIlroy signed with Nike but that he potentially jeopardised his career by putting 14 new clubs in the bag without having used them in competition.
What gets Faldo is not that McIlroy is being paid vast sums of money but that an entire generation of players is being rewarded on the basis of future performance.
“I was one of the first people to tweet about the club thing and I said it was dangerous simply because he is taking his winning equipment, which is confidence,” Faldo said. “And it’s more than winning equipment because he is now world No 1. He has gone from Rookie of the Year five years ago (sic) to world No 1 using a certain brand and then he ditched the lot.
“I personally said, that’s dangerous. There is a difference in the feel. As I was saying it because I know him as a kid, I know him as a friend that if you mess with feel, that’s confidence for me. Now it might all come out in the wash and he might be fine and sticks two fingers up at us. If he says to us, listen, I know what I am doing, then absolutely fine.
“But what I am saying, with the benefit of hindsight and having been around the block a few times now, it was quite a dangerous thing to do to be honest. If it all comes out in the wash, great.
“He is already set for life with money. We know the prize money, we know the appearance fee, and we are all guessing about the Nike deal. So he’s got 30-40 million already guaranteed. Right? So you have a lifestyle already. You’ve got the house, it can only get bigger, can’t get better. You’ve got all the cars. They can only get more shiny. You can’t get better than Lamborghini’s and Bugatti’s or whatever he’s got. You fly privately and will get richer and might get your own plane. So you have got that standard of luxury already. Agree?
“So you are a golfer with a 20 year window and that is the No 1 priority. I know, speaking at the age of 55. That is your priority. Go and be a golfer for 20 years and the only priority is winning. That’s your business and that’s your passion. Next is a wife and children and a charitable cause. After that you ain’t got time for anything else.
“If I was advising him, I’d say, ‘You know what, if you’ve won 10 majors when you retire, a monkey can sell you for tens of millions.’ Because the phone rings in. They say, ‘We want Rory McIlroy, how much?’ ‘Well it’s 10 million. Take it or leave it.’ That’s negotiating when you are the best. But if you are a nobody at 45, then your manager has to call up. It’s way more difficult.
“To be really honest, I was amazed when he sat there in Abu Dhabi (for the Nike launch) without having hit one competitive shot and said, these are the clubs. I thought, ‘wow.’ I thought that was a mistake. That’s my opinion. The company is very happy you are putting the club in the bag but when you want to take the club out of the bag, then it gets really nasty. I’ve been there. You do it to help the company and then realise this driver is useless and you can’t hit the darn thing. They say tough shit mate, you’ve put it in the bag, now play with it.”
Faldo knows what it’s like to be constantly second guessed by the critics and the press having completely overhauled his swing with David Leadbetter in the mid-80s, suffering a dramatic loss of form, before breaking through to win the Open at Muirfield at the age of 30 in 1987.
“To be honest, I had a goal as a kid that I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 30 and I won the Open at Muirfield the week I was 30,” Faldo said. “It’s totally different now. These kids are millionaires before they even tee it up.
“We had to really win to change our lives. Now you can be a journeyman and not win and make 2, 3 or 4 million. That’s a damn good job, you can’t get a job that good anywhere else and those massive pensions when they finish as well. You are set financially. But back in my era to have a better house and a better car, we had to win.
“My deals, Mizuno eventually got big and I did well out of Pringle and things like that but it was all performance bonuses. I had really great contracts and sure I made a lot of money but we had to win to make it. It’s different now. To change your life, you couldn’t do it being a journeyman or just good. I had years when I was making over £2m. I did pretty well.
“The bottom line with Rory now, the most important thing, is playing golf. You have a window as an athlete and you must respect that. You have an opportunity as an athlete over 20 years to make playing your No 1 priority and do what you have to do to be a golfer.”
McIlroy recovered well from his early season struggles, carding rounds of 72 and 70 to go into last night’s third round just four strokes off the lead. Yet Faldo is still aghast that they 23-year old could get his schedule so patently wrong, arriving at Augusta a hair short of full match fitness, and even more surprised by the walk out after just 27 holes at the Honda Classic.
“I do like the way he thinks on and off the golf course. I’ve always said it. He’s a young kid but he gets it. He gets the meet and greet. He understands the corporate world, he understands all that. But he also does some crazy things.
“Walking off the golf course was just amazing. That was one of the unwritten rules in pro golf, you sucked it up. I’ve had days when I’ve started and thought, fucking hell, I’m going to make 18 bogeys today the way it’s going. How embarrassing is that going to look. But you get in with 81. You bust your buns for an 81.
“So that was very strange to just jack it in. But he had a lot going on. The pressure… When you are playing good, the pressure of being No 1 is fine. It’s easy, to use the word lightly. You get on with it. You do it. But when you are playing badly, it drives you up the wall because you have to answer every single question. It is so easy to tell everyone about your game when you are playing well.”
No slouch himself when it came to sticking two fingers up at his critics, Faldo’s second-guessing of McIlroy is both ironic and compelling. How the 23-year old stands up to the pressure when things get really “dangerous” down the stretch in a major some sunny Sunday afternoon remains to be seen.