Golf: Sensations of the seventeenth

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The Independent Online
One Of the greatest attractions of the Ryder Cup is its matchplay format. For the spectator it is a far more exciting form of golf than strokeplay and you may wonder why it is hardly played in the professional game. Apart from the fact that the players' nerves would be shot to pieces, the answer lies with television.

In matchplay the poor old cameraman doesn't know where the action will finish and it is no good the sponsor erecting a huge pavilion adjacent to the 18th green if the players never reach there. As it happens the balance between the teams here is so delicate that most contests are going the distance, which is excellent news for the thousands of fans who have settled around the 17th green and turned it into an amphitheatre.

The atmosphere there is electric and quite appropriate for one of the most distinctive holes at Valderrama. Since Robert Trent Jones designed it more than a decade ago, the ultimate penultimate hole has undergone some minor surgery, most notably by Seve Ballasteros.

When he was in competition with Jaime Ortiz Patino, the owner of Valderrama, for the honour of hosting the Ryder Cup, Patino's response was to offer the Spaniard $1m to give the 17th a facelift. One of the alterations was to cultivate a narrow stretch of rough across the fairway, at the range where a professional would expect his drive to land.

A par five of 511 yards, the player is faced with a choice of going for the green in two, across water, or laying up. When Europe's finest came to Valderrama for the Volvo Masters they called the 17th everything under the sun. Some of the Americans here have also criticised it. "It's not fair when you hit a perfect drive 300 yards and get no advantage from it," Tiger Woods said.

Ballesteros retorted: "Anyone who is uncomfortable with the 17th doesn't know how to manage it. I'm sorry for them but I'm proud of the hole. It is meant to be a par five." Miguel Angel Jimenez, who is one of Ballesteros's assistants here, knows exactly how to play the 17th. During the Volvo Masters in 1994 he hit a driver and a three-iron from 210 yards. The ball disappeared into the cup for an albatross two.

Yesterday Europe, by and large, played the hole more effectively than the bemused Americans. "There is no right or wrong way to play it," Colin Montgomerie said. "It depends how you're feeling at the time."

There is more chance to go on the attack in the fourballs and Monty and his partner, Darren Clarke, had the right approach. While Monty laid up with his second shot, Clarke could afford to go for the green in two. The Irishman's second shot was about a foot short of being sensational. It caught the top of the bank and rolled back into the water. No matter.

Montgomerie's third shot was a gem, his ball coming to rest four feet above the flag and he made the putt for a birdie four. It was a humbling experience for Fred Couples and Davis Love who lost the hole to go behind for the first time. Couples, who missed the green left, duffed his chip out of azalea country while Love's first putt from the back of the green was a particularly weak effort. "Monty, Monty, Monty," chanted the massed ranks in the amphitheatre.

In the second match, Ian Woosnam and Thomas Bjorn had a terrific tussle with Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon and the end came at the 17th where the Dane did a Monty and his birdie four was enough to clinch victory by 2 and 1.

Match three brought a similar result for Nick Faldo and Lee Westwood against Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara. The English partnership, who have dovetailed so impressively, played the 17th beautifully, both hitting the green in two and neither was required to putt after Woods, from the back of the green, misjudged his shot so hopelessly his ball rolled past the flag and into the pond. The shell-shocked expression on the face of George Bush, the former US President who was sitting in the lion's den at the 17th, said it all.

In the final fourball Ignacio Garrido conjured a near miraculous four at the 17th, getting up and down from a bunker to halve the hole when it looked as if Phil Mickelson had it in the bag.

However, the momentum was with Europe and Ballesteros, who had been scampering around after his players like a mother hen, last night wore the expression of a Cheshire cat.