Golf: Ryder Cup - Patino's patience supplies the patina of perfection

The stage is set for the 32nd Ryder Cup. Valderrama is in perfect condition thanks to its millionaire owner, Jimmy Patino. It ought to be. Patino sold pounds 40m worth of Impressionist paintings to create his pride and joy. Andy Farrell sketches the evolution o
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Early this morning, hours before the first American player tees off to commence the 32nd Ryder Cup, when it was still dark and at a time most people would have considered merely an extension of yesterday, the head greenkeeper at Valderrama rose, as is his daily habit, at 3am to supervise the final preparations for his big day.

For today sees the culmination of a dream for Don Jaime Ortiz-Patino, known universally as Jimmy. Patino is also, of course, the owner, president and captain of a club that is his pride, joy and passion. But it is his on-course role that best illustrates his hands-on approach.

"A championship golf course," Patino said, "must have a skilled work force, using the most modern equipment under the direction of a golf course superintendent who thoroughly understands each man's job, who is highly skilled in turf grass management, and is adequately informed on such matters as agronomy, drainage and arboriculture." He adds: "I was determined to be that superintendent."

The result is the finest conditioned course ever seen for a golf tournament in Europe. "Immaculate," says the American captain, Tom Kite. "Absolutely perfect," adds Seve Ballesteros, his opposite number. "It is impossible to find a golf course in better condition."

Patino is a perfectionist. He attended courses and lectures in America and talked for hours with the professional superintendents he found there. "Gee," one said when he heard Patino had come from Spain, "your members must be well-heeled if they can send you all this way."

Well-heeled is not the half of it. The grandson of a Bolivian tin-mining magnate, Simon Patino, Jimmy was born in Paris, educated in England, Switzerland and the United States, ran the family business, has been head of overseas development for the Costa Rican government and spent 10 years as president of the World Bridge Federation.

It took him 20 years to work his way into the post at a time when the game was tarred by cheating allegations. The Italians, who won 11 times in a row before his presidency, have never won since. For relaxation, Patino journeyed to Sotogrande, an oasis of green at the then undeveloped end of the Costa del Sol.

When he could not get a tee time at Sotogrande Old, because it was getting too crowded, he formed a consortium with people such as the heads of De Beers, Nestle and Credit Suisse and bought the nearby Las Aves - there are 78 species of bird on the estate - in 1986, renaming it Valderrama. Four years later, he bought them out. "All the happiest and best-run golf clubs are one-man shows," he said.

Robert Trent Jones, whose original lay-out was built on a limited budget, was brought back to redesign the course. Patino sold his 20-acre mansion in Geneva, pounds 40m worth of Impressionist paintings and his 5,000-bottle collection of vintage wine to fund his passion.

In 1988, Valderrama staged the first of nine Volvo Masters, and after each year Patino tweaked this or that. Europe's pros were not ready for the challenge of a course that mixes the speedy greens of Augusta, the narrow fairways and thick rough of a US Open venue, and the strong inland and sea breezes of a links. When Nick Faldo won there in 1988, Ballesteros was the only other man under par.

Four years later, Faldo was still saying: "You have to play like God to break par here." In golf, playing like Bernhard Langer is the next best thing. In 1994, Langer shot a nine-under 62, breaking the course record by three strokes. By common consent, it will not be beaten in most current tour players' lifetimes.

"I don't think it is symptomatic of Valderrama that 62 will be shot very often," a shocked Patino wrote in his newsletter the following day. "But if someone is to shoot a score like that I prefer it to be done by a great champion and Bernhard is one of the all-time greats." Langer's precise long game is exactly what is required at Valderrama.

It is the cork trees lining the fairways that are the dominant feature. "They are like a wall," Faldo said. "You can't go over or round. You have to treat then like a hazard." The European team is split between the world stars who do not consider the course a significant advantage, and the mere mortals who do.

Kite agrees. "The Europeans have seen it in all weathers," he said. Typically, the meticulous Kite has studied the weather reports for Valderrama for the last 300 days. "I think it is a wonderful course, great for matchplay, but we don't see a lot of courses in America like this anymore."

Why Patino wanted to host the Ryder Cup is a question he dismisses easily. "It is like asking a serious actor if he wants to play Hamlet," he said. But what next? The Volvo Masters is unlikely to return, but Valderrama may stage the European leg of the World Championship Series which starts in 1999.

Up until today, Patino's proudest moment came in a London taxi two days after the 1994 Volvo Masters, which was the first and only one shown on the BBC. "The driver was a keen golfer and very talkative. When he found out I was from Spain, he waxed lyrical about the beauty of a course he had heard about for years, but never been able to see on television until that weekend. I did not say anything, but he must have wondered why he got quite such a lavish tip."