James Lawton on the Ryder Cup: Stay calm and channel the spirit of Seve Ballesteros

The US would be foolish to focus on Rory – the secret to European success could well be Olazabal and the lessons he learnt from his beloved compatriot and mentor

Chief Sports Writer, Medinah

It was inevitable – but not necessarily right – that the American high command should target Rory McIlroy here over these next few days.

They have done it in one of the most overtly aggressive Ryder Cup initiatives since Corey Pavin 21 years ago donned his Desert Storm cap and whipped up the people in South Carolina for what would always be known as the War on the Shore.

Yes, of course, everyone knows that McIlroy, despite the weekend lapse which cost him roughly £7m and some of the most astonishing momentum golf has ever seen, is just one sunny mood change away from his most unanswerable game.

The long Medinah course in the suburbs of Chicago, which has twice seen Tiger Woods claim major titles, is a custom-made stage for the young Irishman who has, like the Tiger 15 years ago, not so much come to dominate the game as besiege its senses.

It is true that two years ago in a rain-sodden Welsh valley McIlroy could do no better than finish with a win, a half and a loss, but he was 21 and still unformed in his understanding of what the Ryder Cup had come to mean to such major winners as Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Sir Nick Faldo. He mistook the Ryder Cup for exhibition golf, which was a bit like confusing the local pitch-and-putt course with the back nine at Augusta.

He knows so much more now, and not least the aura and the requirements he carries with him every time he walks on to a golf course, and so naturally the American captain, Davis Love III, and permanent patriot Paul Azinger have been stressing their team's No 1 imperative.

Stop McIlroy, they say, and Europe will be cut off at the pass.

But will they? The suspicion must be that they will find other routes.

The fact is that Europe's key figure could well be the one who will not be asked to fire a single shot. While McIlroy can accept sole responsibility for gaining just one point, in Sunday's singles, his captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, will attempt to shape every one of the 14 that will be enough for Europe to retain the trophy.

At 46, the man from the Basque country will attempt to nurture and cajole, pick up points of pressure and try to resolve them through his three-day watch but this isn't the only certainty of his performance. He will also have another priority, one that was burnt into his brain – and perhaps even his soul – by his beloved compatriot Ballesteros in Valderrama 15 years ago.

It was supposed to be the great man's crowning triumph at the end of a superb Ryder Cup career – and in a way it became so when Colin Montgomerie sent down the putt which delivered the tightest of victories.

But that unforgettable moment came after a taut scene which may well, all these years on, have a huge influence on the way Olazabal tackles the challenge he has yearned for with a special force since being overlooked in favour of Montgomerie two years ago.

At the end of a brilliant surge through the four-balls and foursomes – in which he took three-and-a-half points – Olazabal found himself locked in a fierce battle with Lee Janzen. Ballesteros – the great inspiration of Olazabal's life – charged down the fairway on his buggy. He was, after all, not so much the captain of Europe as the source of its most passionate emotion. The captain plainly had so much advice to offer. But the player raised a restraining hand and hunched over his shot.

At the end of the round Olazabal was a shot down and we can only guess at the extent of the pain he felt in front of his home crowd. However, Europe won and it is necessary to believe that Olazabal learnt lessons that day which he would never forget.

There was, surely, a hint of this in Chicago this week when he declared: "I'm going to be myself. I will not be all over the players as they know their strengths better than I do. I shall just remind them how great this week is. Yes, I will show some emotion."

It is a resource that has always been close at hand. Ian Poulter, not always the most reflective of characters, at least not when he addresses his wardrobe and that old belief of his that one day the only occupants of golf's most significant terrain would be the Tiger and himself, believes the captain is vital to European prospects. "Everyone breathes the passion of the Ryder Cup through Olly," he says.

He first displayed it on a big stage with a famous dance routine at the moment of victory under Tony Jacklin in Jack Nicklaus's lair of Dublin, Ohio, in 1987. At 21 he had reason enough for his flamenco snap, after winning three out of four points with Ballesteros as Europe built an unassailable advantage going into the singles.

Four years later, he was immense in the War on the Shore, sharing a 2 and 1 victory with Ballesteros over Azinger and Chip Beck that was at times almost as elemental as a fist fight. Ballesteros duelled ferociously with his sworn enemy Azinger. Olazabal, the devoted acolyte, attended to his business with a brilliant touch in the short game which would eventually bring him two Green Jackets at Augusta.

When he won the second of those, in 1999, the force of his emotion was something you would never forget. It came five years after his first success and it was more than a triumph of golf. It had been an act of supreme will. For a while he couldn't walk for the pain in his feet, a condition which threatened to send him into a wheelchair. But he always said that he would win in the end and he fought for it with all the resolution that the Americans must overcome before dusk comes to Medinah on Sunday.

They are right about McIlroy and his ability to perform the most remarkable deeds. He is, no doubt, the star of the European show. But then, he may not be the ultimate strength. That may well be the spirit of the man who got up from his bed and walked.

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