Game where Seve is sublime and Tiger tameable

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The essential difference between strokeplay and matchplay is that the former is played with a golf glove, the latter with gloves off. Since the Ryder Cup became a meaningful competition, when Great Britain and Ireland embraced Europe, and in particular Seve Ballesteros, it has been a bareknuckle ride.

Matchplay is where it gets personal and every hole can seem like sudden death. "Wouldn't it be great to have 12 Seves,'' Eamonn Darcy said. "He just hates the Americans. He doesn't like shaking hands with them even when he's beaten them.'' Ballesteros's game is currently out of bounds and the great matador will not be at The Belfry. "If it was an ordinary tournament I doubt whether he'd break 100,'' Darcy added, "but in the Ryder Cup I'd bet he'd still be a force.''

Therein lies the difference. Strokeplay is primarily the golfer in lone pursuit of the course with par as his marker. In matchplay par is irrelevant. The name of the game is beating your opponent and it doesn't matter whether you win a hole with a six or a three.

"There is much more strategy,'' Darcy said. "The guys who are into the inner game seem to be the better matchplay players. There's no doubt there are specialists and Seve is a perfect example. Tiger Woods is the best player in the world but his matchplay record is poor. In strokeplay you have a gameplan and don't change it. In matchplay the situation changes all the time. There's nothing worse than outgolfing your opponents from tee to green but they putt like hell and you're left feeling distraught. It can be the cruellest game.''

And the most satisfying. By 1987 Darcy, at the age of 35, was playing in his fourth and last Ryder Cup. He was the last to qualify and his reward was an ulcer. Ulcers, hair loss and premature ageing comes from matchplay... in the Ryder Cup. Under the Concorde captaincy of Tony Jacklin Europe were up against a United States led by Jack Nicklaus. For added insurance the match was staged at the Golden Bear's course, Muirfield Village. But the macho men were now being matched by the Mach two men.

Europe needed only four points from 12 in the singles to become the first side to triumph in America. In matchplay there is no such word as only. The US mounted their traditional cavalry charge, restricting Europe to three wins, by Howard Clark, Darcy and Ballesteros, and three halves before going down 15-13. When Darcy went head-to-head with Ben Crenshaw it was his 11th time on the tee in the cup and he had not won a single match. "When I first went to America I thought those guys were gods,'' the Irishman said. "It was a mental thing. It was like we were two down standing on the first tee.''

It was hardly surprising. The Yanks drove Cadillacs that were longer than an English summer and smoked cigars the size of small telegraph poles. The Europeans had spam and stout and wore cardigans with patches on the sleeves.

"I eventually realised,'' Darcy said, "that if you applied pressure those guys were just as vulnerable. My policy against Crenshaw was that whenever he stood over a putt I assumed he'd get it. If he did I wasn't disappointed. If he didn't it was a bonus. If you hope somebody misses, you're in trouble. I said to myself, 'Ben's feeling the pressure as much as I am'.''

On the first tee Darcy was confronted by a 20st spectator. "He was frothing at the mouth and yelling 'kill him Ben, kill him'.'' Darcy, who never realised that Crenshaw had broken his putter at the sixth ("I was in a cocoon and I couldn't have cared less if he was putting with his driver") won on the 18th by holing a downhill four footer that was faster than Tim Montgomery. Had he missed, the ball would have ended up back on the fairway. "Jack put his arm around me and said 'you're going to remember this for the rest of your life. That putt has buried us'.''

Not quite. Tactics and mathematics played a key role. Darcy's precious point edged Europe to 13. Bernhard Langer and Larry Nelson went to the 18th all square where a half would mean that Europe would retain the cup because Ballesteros, two matches behind, could do no worse than get a half against Curtis Strange. The thought occurred to Langer for when he and Nelson finished about two and a half feet from the hole, the German offered the American a half. Nelson accepted.

Europe now had the US in a half nelson and it was left to Ballesteros to apply the coup de grâce with a two and one victory over Strange. Darcy: "Seve said it was my putt that won the Ryder Cup which was very nice of him. He usually takes most of the credit.''

Jacklin was in charge of the best team Europe ever fielded and his pairings in the foursomes and fourballs were spot on. Sam Torrance has to get his partnerships right on the first two days and on Saturday night burn the midnight oil in determining the sequence in which he sends out his 12 men in the Sunday singles. "The most important thing,'' said Darcy, "is not to play your top guys too often. They end up knackered. It happens every time. I think Sam will be one of the best. He is so in touch with the players. They know they can talk to him. It's vital not to let the occasion get to you. Dreams start swimming around your head and when that happens you're gone.''