Golf: Seve relishes history and a homecoming

The staging of the Ryder Cup in Spain for the first time next week will give the competition a special flavour - especially for a European team led by one of the modern game's most inspirational figures, Severiano Ballesteros.
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Severiano Ballesteros' career has been one of cause and effect. Give him a cause he believes in passionately and the effect can be devastating. Two of the most powerful influences in his golfing life have been his passion for beating Americans and his desire to raise the profile of the game in his home country. In next weekend's Ryder Cup, the two collide. As captain of the European team, Ballesteros will put the drama into Valderrama.

That the Ryder Cup, the gift to international competition of seed merchant Samuel Ryder in 1927, will be played in Spain for the first time is deserved recognition for a quite exceptional Spaniard.

The event has only been played outside England or America once, at Muirfield in Scotland, and in recent times has appeared the private property of The Belfry. The one-time potato field in the west Midlands has staged the last three matches in Europe, and will do so again in 2001, the centenary year of the Professional Golfers' Assocation which is based there.

So this is Ballesteros' golden moment, though, like most things in his career, controversy has not been far away. Rows about who should be on the team merely followed squabbles about where the match should have been played. Anything could happen this week, and probably will.

Yet Ballesteros' flair for the unpredictable and the brilliant would have been lost to the competition which best suits his genius but for Jack Nicklaus. It took no lesser a person than Nicklaus to persuade the British PGA to open its doors to the continental Europeans to even up what had become a biennial non-contest.

At the time, Ballesteros had already announced himself as a 19-year-old by finishing as runner-up in the 1976 Open Championship. By the time he and Antonio Garrido teed up in the 1979 Ryder Cup, Ballesteros had become the Open champion at Lytham. By 1983, when the Americans won by only a point, Seve had fallen under the spell of the Ryder Cup.

"That was when I realised that the Ryder Cup meant a lot to everyone," he said. It was here that he played what he would later describe as "one of the shots of my life". At one point three-up on Fuzzy Zoeller, the Spaniard saw his lead disappear and was in trouble at the last when he hit a three-wood from a fairway bunker over the green which enabled him to halve his match.

Seve's spirit and enthusiasm drove Europe on to the historic victories at The Belfry in 1985, the first win in 28 years, and at Muirfield Village 1987, for the first time on American soil.

But there have also been tears. Bernhard Langer, after missing that putt on the final green at Kiawah Island in '91, did not break down until embraced by Ballesteros. Two years later, sent to console Costantino Rocca, who lost a vital match, Seve ended up being cheered by the Italian.

"I think that Seve Ballesteros is the most incredible being I have ever met," Tony Jacklin, Europe's captain in from 1983 to 1989, said at Muirfield Village. "In situations like this he is almost superhuman."

David Feherty, who played in the '91 match, explained it this way: "It's almost like there's a force field around him," he said. "He gets this aura of invincibility."

Even playing the worst golf of his life two years ago at Oak Hill, Ballesteros, without hitting a fairway on the front nine, managed to be only one down to Tom Lehman in the top singles. The point was eventually lost, but the not on his team-mates, who fed on his will-power to overturn a two-point deficit and regain the Cup.

"He doesn't leave anything for granted," said Jose Maria Olazabal, who partnered Ballesteros to 11 wins in 15 matches together. "He tries the best and gets the best out of the rest of the players. That's why he has been so inspirational."

Whether Ballesteros, unlike Lee Trevino or Brian Huggett in the past, can turn that inspiration as a player into skilled leadership as captain is his next challenge. "I believe so," said Olazabal. "I think he will somehow make the team into a strong team and a very close team. I believe he will get the best out of us."

But along the way have been the controversies, too. He was left out of the 1981 match due to a dispute about appearance money on the European tour, while American players are convinced it is no coincidence Ballesteros arrives on the first tee with a little cough. After their clashes in the 1989 and 1991 matches, Paul Azinger described him as "the king of gamesmanship", a statement he later retracted.

Off the course, it has been no different. While Valderrama, the exclusive course owned by the Bolivian Jaime Ortiz-Patino, was always the front- runner to stage the match, Ballesteros campaigned for the Ryder Cup to go to his own course, Novo Sancti Petri, near Cadiz. He now regrets getting involved. On two occasions he called the Spanish Golf Federation a "cancer on the game" and accused Patino of trying to bribe him.

How much notice Spain is taking of the Ryder Cup, though, is another of Ballesteros' concerns. "People will be interested for the week of the Ryder Cup, but not the week before or the week after," said a leading Spanish golf journalist.

When tickets went on sale to golf clubs in 1994, there was virtually no immediate response and the federation had to reserve 5,000 tickets. Of the 25,000 gallery, 18,000 are expected to come from Britain, northern Europe and America.

While Andalucia has taken the opportunity to market itself as a worldwide destination, attracting new golf course building and large hotel groups like Marriott, the growth of golf in the country as a whole has been restricted to the emergence of golf societies and local villages clearing scrubland to lay out three or four rough holes.

"That would never have happened 10 years ago, but there are only 100,000 golfers registered with the Spanish Federation. Golf is still a very elitist sport in Spain," the journalist added.

Hardly a line recorded Ballesteros' first US Masters victory in 1980, which is something he has not forgotten. One of his recent complaints has been that there were no Spanish in Munich or Crans for the team announcements - or non-announcements. They preferred to stay at home where the controversially excluded Miguel Angel Martin was venting his spleen.

"It is very sad that it took Martin for the Spanish papers to write about the Ryder Cup," said Ballesteros. At least there will be plenty to write about over the next week.