A Knight on the Links

Professional golfer Nick Faldo returns to Eureka, where he designed one of the region’s finest golf courses, the Wilderness Club

By Dillon Tabish
Nick Faldo gives a clinic at the Wilderness Club in Eureka on Sept. 3, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

As the ball took flight, someone in the crowd peeped up, “Pushed it.”

The golfer grinned at the criticism.

An easy-going demonstration in front of about 100 people gained a sudden competitive edge.

A challenge.

As the flag waved in the wind about 195 yards away, the golfer clutched his 6-iron and settled a new ball on the crisp grass in front of him. In one swift, smooth swing, he drilled it. It sailed through the air for a few captivating seconds before it fell less than five yards from the pin.

Nick Faldo turned and looked at the crowd, revealing another grin.

At 58, one of golf’s all-time greats can still command the game with familiar flair as he demonstrated last week at the Wilderness Club in Eureka.

“It only takes 10 million balls and 40 years of practice,” he joked.

Faldo was in Northwest Montana for vacation, having recently wrapped up another exciting season covering the top PGA Tour events as the lead golf analyst for CBS Sports.

Before playing another round or casting for trout with his son, Matthew, in Fernie, British Columbia, Faldo spent two hours on Sept. 3 at the driving range offering tips and pointers to a captivated crowd of golf enthusiasts.

It was a precious chance for local golfers to learn from one of the best while also getting to know one of the icons of the sport. Faldo has captured six major championships, including a famous victory at the Masters in 1996 when he rallied back from six strokes in the final round to claim the green jacket. In July, he played his final round at St. Andrews, the famed course that is one of the oldest in the world and frequently hosts the Open Championship, or British Open.

Faldo shared the story of returning to the hallowed grounds with nervousness. His anxiety spiked after he injured his finger days beforehand — he impaled it on a set of deer antlers hanging on the wall behind him as he changed shirts — but his son, who was caddying, helped ease the tension.

“Matthew was great, he says, ‘Dad, I don’t care what you shoot. Let’s go for a walk,’” Faldo recalled.

As it happened, Faldo was in vintage form, donning the same sweater he wore when he claimed victory there in 1990 and shooting a 3 on hole 17. He was one of only four players to card a 3 on one of the course’s top holes.

Faldo was famous in the heart of his playing days for his competitive nature, disciplined approach and grace under pressure. In 2009, he became only the second professional golfer to be given the honor of knighthood in England, earning the distinctive title of “Sir” Nick Faldo.

“It was one of the greatest days, one of the most emotional days of my life,” he said, recalling the ceremony at Windsor Castle in front of Queen Elizabeth II.

Far from his homeland in England and his home state of Florida, the Tobacco Valley is an adored retreat for the longtime professional golfer. Last decade he ventured to this corner of the state with world-renowned golf course architects Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley to design the Wilderness Club on the rural pastureland outside Eureka. It opened in 2009 and is considered one of the finest courses in the region. Golf Digest named it the best public golf course in Montana in 2014.

“I’m happy with it. It’s good. Every hole is different, which is great. It’s pretty. It’s dramatic,” he said of the course. “It’s good to come up here and get away. The course is a great challenge. You could come up here and play for four to six days and you wouldn’t get bored. Every day you get something different.”

He said he designed the course around the identity of the surrounding scenery: “big and bold.” He wanted all abilities to be tested when they played here.

When asked if the best players in the world would be able to conquer the Wilderness Club, Faldo responded with a sense of pride.

“We’ve got enough slope on these greens, we could defend it quite well I think,” he said.

As for the current state of the game, Faldo praised the new generation of young stars — Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Ricky Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson — and he described this era as a great time for the sport.

“We’ve had great leaderboards haven’t we? How many tournaments have we had this year where you’ve heard me say, ‘We’ve got 19 players within two shots?’ It’s every week,” Faldo said.

“The TV viewership was up 30 percent, even without Tiger. We have transitioned.”

Alongside the advice, he shared stories from his life as a pro golfer — at the age of 14, watching Jack Nicklaus play at the 1971 Masters on television and becoming inspired to learn the game, and then one day playing alongside the Golden Bear; winning the dramatic 1996 Masters over Greg Norman; traveling the world to design golf courses, a passion of his.

He still plays golf but not as much as he once did. His competitive days are mostly over. Instead, he likes helping others learn the game — a television show emphasizing the science and fitness elements is in the works, he said. Nowadays, he enjoys his “desk job,” but he still finds himself going outside and hitting balls for an hour or so, seeing how the swing still feels.

“I genuinely love it,” he said.

“Isn’t it fun to challenge yourself with this game?”

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