Couples, Faldo take varied roads to top


ST. LOUIS -- As the final major tournament of the year, the 74th PGA Championship, which was to begin today at the Bellerive Country Club, is most attractive as a battle between a select few to win the official stamp as the best player of 1992.

This year's chosen elite are Fred Couples, winner of the Masters; Nick Faldo, the British Open champion; Tom Kite, the U.S. Open champion; and Davis Love III, a three-time winner. Their edge is so clear-cut that the PGA of America, showing admirable stage presence, has joined Couples, Faldo and Kite in a threesome for the first two rounds.

But unless Kite or Love were actually to win this week, no one will be able to outdo what Faldo and Couples have accomplished this year.

As the winner of three American events including at Augusta, and currently the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour, Couples was the dominant player in the first half of the year.

Faldo, winner of three of his last five tournaments including his dramatic victory at Muirfield, and the leading money-winner on the European Tour, has clearly been the world's best in the second half. And he has overtaken Couples as the No. 1 player on the Sony Ranking.

Indeed, the 32-year-old American and the 35-year-old Englishman are like two halves of the complete player: golf's yin and yang.

Couples is perhaps the most naturally graceful top player in the world, while Faldo is the most mechanical. Couples' strengths are power and improvisation, while Faldo's are precision and restraint.

Couples is great recovering from trouble, while Faldo never seems to leave the fairway.

Outwardly, Couples is among the most relaxed of competitors; Faldo is one of the most intense. Couples values being one of the boys; Faldo is close to no one.

But the biggest difference might be in their attitude to being No. 1: Faldo wants it with all his heart. Couples, to all appearances, doesn't.

While Couples, since winning the Masters, has taken several weeks off from competition, avoided the press, and generally allowed his game to lose its edge, Faldo has gone about his craft the old-fashioned way.

"You can't deny the fact that Nick wants to be a champion," said Lee Trevino, on the day when Faldo was coming down the stretch at Muirfield. "Like him or not, you have to respect the fact that the man's work ethic is fantastic.

"I think Couples has a tremendous amount of talent, but does he want it bad enough? And he'll be the first to tell you 'No.' Faldo, he looks so good you think he's never going to make a mistake. He's so strong in the head. He reminds me of Jack [Nicklaus] when he was on."

Did Nicklaus himself have any advice for dealing with the pressures of aspiring to be the best? "Yes, grow up," he said. "If you want to play the game, it's part of the heat, isn't it? If you want to win the major tournaments you have to deal with it. Faldo has put up with it. He's the closest."

Tom Watson, the player who succeeded Nicklaus as No. 1, is not quite as hard on Couples, or as unequivocal in his praise of Faldo.

"To be at the top of the sport, you take on a lot of the added pressure,"said Watson, who was PGA Player of the Year six times between 1977 and 1984. "The budgeting of your time is probably the most important thing.

"So I don't blame Fred. He is someone who needs his space, who needs his time."

On the other hand, Watson is more able to identify with Faldo.

"Nick is a totally different personality," Watson said. "He can TTC pretty much handle himself wherever he goes. I was closer to Nick in my approach, constantly working on my game. The danger is getting too intense."

It's a lesson that Faldo seems to be aware of. At Muirfield, he constantly referred to the tremendous pressure, to the point that he saw retirement or a significant curtailment by the year 2000.

"This is a lot more relaxed for me than the British Open," said Faldo. who with a victory would become the first European-born player to win the PGA Championship since Tommy Armour in 1930. "I feel I've got a free run at this."

Now that Faldo has learned from Couples, perhaps it is time for Couples to learn from Faldo.

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