Nick Faldo revelled in his return to Muirfield and proved he can still produce the old magic, despite his lack of competitive golf, after he shot a three under par 68 for a share of the lead on day one of The Senior Open Championship, presented by Aberdeen Asset Management.
Joining Faldo at the top of the leaderboard in the US$2,000,000 Championship were European Seniors Tour players Gordon J Brand and Nick Job, both of England, and American Dave Stockton, the 65 year old former double US PGA Championship winner, all of whom shot 68s.
A shot further back after rounds of 69 were 2007 US Senior PGA winner Denis Watson of Zimbabwe, Sam Torrance of Scotland, winner of the European Seniors Tour Order of Merit in the past two years, Americans Scott Hoch, Lonnie Nielsen and Morris Hatalsky, plus Bruce Heuchan of Canada.
During the 1980s and 90s, the name ‘Faldo’ appeared at the top of the leaderboard with almost metronomic regularity – and it found its way up there once more, penning in style the script fans hoped would be written when Faldo announced he would make his senior bow at Muirfield.
Although he admitted he was “not confident” the day before the tournament started, Faldo rolled back the years on the course where he won two of his three Open Championships to delight the crowds watching him make his senior debut.
It was only his third competitive round in eight months – and reinforced defending champion Loren Roberts’ belief that Faldo would challenge over his beloved Muirfield for another Claret Jug.
The six times Major Champion said: “I was very surprised. I was trying to do the best I could, trying to find a routine and I was able to do it. And that scared me. I didn’t know what to do!
“So then I’ve got to learn to deal with the different feelings playing this game, which I haven’t had in a long time. I played solid that back nine – it’s a little tougher. I made a mess of 17 and hit a great shot into the last. So I feel I squeezed out of the course and gave back what was about right, so that’s pretty good.”
Faldo bogeyed the opening hole after pushing his drive into the heavy rough, chipping out and playing his approach beyond the flag, narrowly missing a lengthy par putt of 25 feet.
However, three birdies in a row on holes three, four and five took the Englishman to three under par, as he holed out in the firm, decisive manner he used to at his pomp.
A further lengthy putt hit the bottom of the cup on hole seven, while a big two putt from just off the green on nine took Faldo to four under par and an outward nine of 32.
A steady run of pars resumed until the 14th, when he bogeyed. He dropped another on the 17th but on the 18th, evoking memories of the glorious three iron he hit to set up the par that claimed the 1992 Open, Faldo’s arrow-like six iron nestled a few feet from the cup. It was a putt he duly sent plunging into the hole for a closing birdie.
“Yeah, that was nice. When I looked back at that second shot, I thought, well, you love looking back and saying ‘you hit five iron from there, three iron from there,’ so I went for the shot. I thought, ‘squeeze one up close’ and I did. It was very pleasing,” said Europe’s 2008 Ryder Cup Captain.
Faldo was supported by his parents George and Joyce in a sizeable gallery. Both spoke of how the past 30 years watching his career had flown by, how it felt strange that their son was now a senior and playing with many of the old faces he first started out with on The European Tour back in 1976.
Commenting on his own round of 68, Job, who is receiving help from fellow Senior Open competitor and European Seniors Tour player Carl Mason, said: "I've got two gurus - an on course guru and an off-course guru. One is Mase and one is a club professional called Guy Torbett.
"I've been to see Gary for putting lessons and it's made a huge difference. We worked on flattening my shoulders and sitting a bit more like Ernie Els, which has actually raised my hands. This is my first tournament with the new position. It has improved my posture and made my putting stroke better. These greens at Muirfield are so good that if you get a good stroke going, you will hole a lot of putts. Mase has also given me things to work on as my shoulder line was very closed and I was getting locked out."
Stockton went out in 33, three under par, and continued his good play with a level par 35. His verdict was one of surprise, but having spent some time practising in Ireland on some links courses last week – “just like Tiger making a swing before the regular Open” – he had arrived in Scotland optimistic.
“My ball striking was good at the US Seniors Open, and the combination of knowing it was Muirfield and my game was coming back, well, I did come over with expectations of sticking around but I wasn’t expecting to see my name at the top of the leaderboard,” he said.
Torrance was delighted with his two under par 69 and back nine of 33, after suffering a blow on the ninth when he lost a ball after driving into the rough at the par five, when he was already two under par.
"It broke my heart," he said, reflecting on his double-bogey seven. "The drive pitched within three feet from the ball marker; he was alert, he was watching, but couldn't find it. It literally landed there next to him. It was a poor drive. It deserved to be in the rough but I didn't deserve to lose it. Then of course I knocked it on the front edge of the green and three putted. Every great disaster finishes with a three putt. But it was great to come back with a 33. It's a tough nine holes."
When asked about Faldo's 68 and whether he was surprised by it, Torrance said: "Not at all. He's a great player, isn't he? He's very special and I had no doubts he'd play well. He's too proud - he wouldn't come out here not prepared. I know he said he hadn't played for eight months, but that's competitively for eight months. Seriously though, he has put in a great performance."
The Scot also relished the prospect of two father and son partnerships battling it out for The Senior Open title - Torrance and his son Daniel, and Faldo and his son Matthew, who is also on bag duties this week for his dad. "Yes, it would be nice to have that on Sunday afternoon coming down the stretch," he smiled.
Argentine Eduardo Romero, runner-up last year, plus American legends Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw, were among those who shot one under par 70 and rued their cold putters.
Romero, who had 16 pars, a bogey and eagle in his card, said: “I missed a lot of birdie chances today. It’s unlucky, as I played good. Maybe I didn’t see good lines, maybe I saw the wrong lines today all the time. I will work on my putting tonight – but a red number is always good in this tournament and there are three rounds to go.”
Watson, who is playing with Faldo and Mark O’Meara, said: “It was a below average day on the greens for me but at least I made a couple of putts; on 10 for par and 17 for eagle, so all in all, it wasn’t a totally lost day on the greens. 70 is a score that keeps me in the hunt, for sure.”
New Zealand's Bob Charles shot a level par 71 to match his age. The former Open champion shot 38 going out and 33 coming back - a bogey on the 18th denying him the chance to better his years.