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Faldo is the Masters' master of obsession

AUGUSTA, GA. — AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Golf is the perfect sport for the obsessive personality, a giant gray area. You can't shoot a perfect round because there is no such thing. You can't have the perfect swing because there is no such thing. Even the best golfers find fault with their best rounds. Compulsive characters thrive in the vague climate. Everyone always thinks there is room to do better.

The game is populated by those so single-minded, men who spend hundreds of hours hitting practice balls and talking elbow adjustment, men who die with their cleats on. Such tunnel vision is a part of every sport, of course, but it is suited to golf like Augusta to spring. All of which makes Nick Faldo quite a figure. Even among golfers he stands out as obsessive.

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He is attempting to win his third straight Masters this week, a feat never accomplished in the tournament's 54 years, and begins play today as, by loud consensus, the best golfer in the world. He is a 33-year-old Englishman, and his story is not one of adversity or happenstance or just diligence, but a fixation so resolute it could make an azalea droop, or very nearly.

Consider: He started out with a swing, a marriage, a body and a personality, and has changed them all to suit his purpose of becoming the best golfer anywhere. Now that's serious. It has caused him some heartache and cost him some friends, but in his world order, that just has to be.

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At the center of it all is his swing, which he rebuilt in 1985 with the help of an American guru named David Leadbetter, discovering a metronome's tempo and consistency. Faldo is a swing freak now, even one among the many such freaks in the game, truly a sporting clinician, always stopping in his tracks to try out another idea. "Nick is never satisfied," Leadbetter said.

He turned to Leadbetter after eight years of average golf on Europe's pro tour, and the cognoscenti say it is his swing, not his nerve or concentration or putting, that has elevated him to No. 1. It is simple, really: He doesn't make many mistakes. Note that he won his first major title, the 1987 British Open, with 18 final-round pars; that he won each of his Masters after his playoff opponents made boo-boos.

That is not to discount his nerve, concentration or putting, for which most other pros would swap. His ability to gather the forces of his concentration is considerable. He undergoes a personality transplant, turning sullen, anti-social, his carriage almost a cartoon of competitiveness. Scott Hoch, whom Faldo beat in a 1989 Masters playoff, once said Faldo needed "a charisma bypass operation." In Faldo's world, it just has to be.

His talent is in blocking out all distractions. Talk to the other golfers during a tournament? No, you're trying to beat them. Talk to the press? You do what you must, but don't stay long, don't give much away. He said he would give only one pre-Masters interview this week, and the message was clear: Otherwise, lads, stay away.

This impassive countenance has not endeared him to golf's public, which has not embraced him as it might a winner of four majors. He does few endorsements, inspires few gallery roars. The truth is that he is just an understated Brit who does not have, and never will, the star quality of a Palmer or Norman. Does he care? What do you think? "What I want to do," he said this week, "is win a Grand Slam."

The man is truly the anti-distraction. He was once married to a woman who was not so devoted to golf. She enjoyed parties, dinners, the high life. Faldo enjoyed sitting in his hotel room adjusting his elbow. The divorce was no surprise. He soon

married again, this time to a woman who supports his obsession. Perhaps it is chauvinism, but for him, it could be no other way.

He has few friends in the locker room. Most of the other golfers say they don't know him. A recent Sports Illustrated profile painted him as perhaps the most unpopular champion since the silent Ben Hogan, but also misunderstood, a closet cut-up who does relax, has friends and loves being with his wife and kids. That's in his down time, though. When it is time for golf, he shuts everything else out.

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What he wants, clearly, is to leave nothing to chance. Even after winning two majors last year, he decided he wasn't in the proper condition and undertook a training regimen that has added more than an inch to his neck, 20 pounds of muscle to his frame and, accordingly, length to his drives. He allows himself one soda a month. It isn't that he hates fun. He just has a different idea of fun's definition.

Some will look down at such stern compulsion, ascribe it to a slight nuttiness, but his results offer powerful evidence. A handful of golfers have come along in the last decade with the wherewithal to challenge for No. 1. Norman. Lyle. Strange. Norman is burned out, Strange is in his version of a funk, Lyle has collapsed. Faldo, the swing freak, the single-minded tactician, the man who will not blink -- he shows no sign of letting up.

The field

American section

Tommy Aaron, George Archer, Paul Azinger, Chip Beck, Jim Benepe, Jay Don Blake, Gary Brewer, Bill Britton, Mark Brooks, Billy Ray Brown, Mark Calcavecchia, Billy Casper, a-Michael Combs, Charles Coody, John Cook, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Mike Donald, Ray Floyd, David Frost, Jim Gallagher, Robert Gamez, Bob Goalby.

Ken Green, Donnie Hammond, Morris Hatalsky, Nolan Henke, Scott Hoch, John Huston, John Inman, Hale Irwin, Peter Jacobsen, Steve Jones, Tom Kite, Kenny Knox, Wayne Levi, Davis Love III, Andrew Magee, Billy Mayfair, Mark McCumber, Rocco Mediate, a-Phil Mickelson, Larry Mize, Gil Morgan, Jodie Mudd, Larry Nelson.

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Jack Nicklaus, Mark O'Meara, Arnold Palmer, Steve Pate, Corey Pavin, Don Pooley, Loren Roberts, Ted Schulz, Tom Sieckmann, Scott Simpson, Tim Simpson, Joey Sindelar, Jeff Sluman, Craig Stadler, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, a-James Stuart, Brian Tennyson, Lee Trevino, Bob Tway, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller.

Foreign section

Ian Baker-Finch, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady, Greg Norman, Australia; Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain; Nick Faldo, Britain; Bernhard Langer, Germany; Sandy Lyle, Scotland; Mark McNulty, Nick Price, Zimbabwe.

Frankie Minoza, Philippines; a-Rolf Muntz, Holland; Tommy Nakajima, Jumbo Ozaki, Japan; Gary Player, a-Manny Zerman, South Africa; Ronan Rafferty, Northern Ireland; Ian Woosnam, Wales. a -- amateur


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