Faldo's major plan is automatic

 

NICK FALDO, back in the US yesterday after a one stop challenge on the European Tour, remained convinced he could gain sufficient points through the major championships this season to become an automatic choice on the Ryder Cup team. The US Masters champion actually moved from 84th to 34th in the qualifying table, by finishing joint fourth in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia last weekend.

His next assignment is the Pebble Beach Pro Am, in which Tiger Woods joins him in the line up on the Monterey Peninsula, starting on Thursday. It coincides with the challenge by six Irishmen in the Heineken Classic at The Vines Perth, where Paul McGinley finished runner up to Ian Woosnam last year.

McGinley, who failed to make the cut at Hope Island last Friday will obviously be hoping for greater joy this time around. He will be joined at The Vines by Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Ronan Rafferty and Raymond Burns, with the addition of David Higgins who failed to get into the Johnnie Walker field.

Though Faldo has departed the scene, last Sunday's winner, Ernie Els, is staying on in Australia, along with fellow USPGA Tour members John Daly and Fred Couples. Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie are there, too, for an outing which is particularly important for Daly, given the embarrassment of carding rounds of 77 and 79 to be 10 strokes outside the cut last weekend.

At Pebble Beach, Faldo will be resuming his partnership of last year's rain ruined event with US pop star Huey Lewis, who happens to be a fellow fishing fanatic. The main focus of attention, however, is certain to be the sensational Woods, who will be partnering movie actor/director, Kevin Costner.

Though he was tied 18th behind the winner Steve Jones in the Phoenix Open last weekend Woods still succeeded in making a major impact on the event by carding a hole in one at the short 16th in the third round on Saturday. Ironically, the same hole deprived Jones of a share in the Tour's aggregate scoring record, set by Ben Hogan in the Portland Invitational in 1945.

Hogan's total on that occasion was 27 under par, which was equalled to years later by Mike Souchak in the Texas Open. To match that target, Jones had to cover the last three holes on Sunday in two under par. As it happened, he birdied the 17th and 18th but had previously dropped a stroke at the 16th where his six iron tee shot was pulled into a deep, greenside trap.

With a closing 67, however, Jones succeeded in beating the previous aggregate record of 24 under par for the Phoenix Open, set by Johnny Miller in 1975. And in capturing his first title since the US Open last June, he was a crushing, 11 strokes clear of second placed Jesper Parnevik who earned $162,000 for his best finish on the US Tour.

Now ninth in the US team standings, the 38 year old Jones seems likely to challenge strongly for a debut appearance in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama. As to his chances of making Tom Kite's line up, he said modestly: "I don't try to grab attention. I just try to do the best I can with the ability I have."

European skipper, Seve Ballesteros, will be expecting a rather more forceful approach from his top player, but Faldo plans to play in only four or possibly five further qualifying events after he defends the US Masters in April.

The Spaniard has insisted that nobody, not even the winner of three British Opens and three US, Masters and a member of the last 10 cup sides, is guaranteed one of his two wild cards for Valderrama in September. Still, if only on the basis of happenings at Oak Hill in 1995, it is unthinkable that he would overlook Faldo if the need arose.

One thing is certain the Englishman has no intention of changing his schedule for this season, so as to assure himself a place in the team. "I have my schedule and that's what I am sticking to," he said. "I don't want to be dashing back and forth across the Atlantic."

As it happens, he has played in only three of the eight qualifying tournaments so far, finishing 25th in the Lancome Trophy and 37th in the Loch Lomond Invitational, both last September, quite apart from the 29,713 points he earned at Hope Island. At this stage, his only other commitments in Europe are at Loch Lomond on July 9th to 12th and in the British Open the following week at Royal Troon, but it is still expected he will play in the Murphy's Irish Open.