Seve covets role of conquistador

Peter Corrigan says that Ballesteros is the man to drive back the Americans
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ALREADY we are looking forward to the next Ryder Cup, which is in 1997 at Valderrama in southern Spain, and already, we are relishing the role that Seve Ballesteros will play in it. What precise form that role will take, however, is a matter that will occupy the intervening time with much speculation, discussion, argument and maybe even the odd cross word.

Seve will want to do as much as possible: set up the course, select the team, captain it and play in it. I trust he will not be allocated the second of those functions, although the method of team selection needs to be examined, but captain he must certainly be and if his five-month sabbatical enables his form to recover he should be allowed to take the hitherto frowned-upon post of playing captain.

What we can be sure about is that when the Americans invade Spain in search of revenge for the defeat that stunned them in Rochester last Sunday, Ballesteros will be waiting for them with a defiance not entirely dissimilar to that once displayed by the 11th-century Spanish warrior Cid Campeador. The legendary El Cid kept the invading Moors at bay and his charisma was so strong that although he died of wounds during one battle they propped up his body in the saddle and sent him out to lead the winning charge.

Heaven forbid that Seve's back injury gets so bad that we have to strap him into a caddie car at Valderrama but this event has now proved itself capable of such dramatic heights that no fantasy is too outrageous. The Ryder Cup has every justification to be regarded as the finest of sporting contests, producing the unlikeliest of heroes and the most unexpected of dramas with a nail-biting finish guaranteed.

The force of its appeal was so strong that, despite millions being denied television coverage, the climax still captivated the nation. The danger now is that those responsible for staging the Cup will be put under pressure to tamper with the selection system or the format or try to involve other continents. While a little tinkering here and there wouldn't hurt, there would be much to lose if the smart-arse marketeers became involved.

There was an attempt earlier this year to create a carbon copy event between Southern Africa and Australia in Johannesburg. It was sponsored by Dunhill and although it brought some fine players together and produced good matches it lacked the Ryder bite. When Greg Norman and Nick Price gave each other 15-foot putts on the 16th hole of their crucial match it summed up the general feeling. Had any two opponents done the same in Rochester, lynching would not have been out of the question.

The fascination of the Ryder Cup is based on genuine, long-standing rivalry. When Tom Watson captained the winning US team at the Belfry two years ago he included among his exhortations to his players the words "They invented golf, but we perfected it." Oh yeah! One of the more lasting pleasures of Europe's victory was the poleaxing it delivered to American confidence that theirs is the superior professional tournament tour.

This was less of an arrogant view than an assumption based on signs that a decade of European strength has been rapidly ebbing away. For the first time in years Americans have won three majors. Nick Faldo had abandoned the European Tour in favour of the States, Ballesteros was struggling and so were Olazabal and Woosnam. Lyle had long gone and even the redoubtable Langer was being rendered vulnerable by a back problem. Apart from Colin Montgomerie there was no one coming through to replace them.

The Americans were not alone in drawing the obvious inference. Months before the Ryder Cup, Faldo and Montgomerie were expressing doubts about our selection system in the light of the powerful team being assembled by the Americans. They clearly thought we were in for a pasting. Then the former European captain Tony Jacklin joined in the condemnation. Unless this was a put-up job to fool the Yanks, and even now Jacklin is cashing Bernard Gallacher's cheque for his part in the conspiracy, there are many entitled to feel a little sheepish about Europe's victory.

The deepest satisfaction deserves to reside in the breast of the European captain, Gallacher. He became testy towards the end but he withstood his isolation with a firm belief that he would field a team capable of winning. On the Saturday night, after Corey Pavin's cruel chip presented him with a two-point deficit that looked terminal, Gallacher could have been forgiven a rueful reflection that one of the reasons Europe were in that position was that his top pair, Faldo and Montgomerie, had earned but a measly point between them.

Those who feel that the team should be selected by choice rather than performance ought to note that Faldo, Montgomerie and Langer, who would have been in everyone's team, were out-performed by Gilford, Torrance and Rocca who, with their past Ryder flops, would have been in very few. Gallacher defended the automatic selection system that requires players to play their way into the team and was totally vindicated. The automatic system also looked good in the light of the performance of Curtis Strange, who was one of the two wild-card selections of the US captain, Lanny Wadkins.

It is rewarding to see Gallacher hand in his captain's badge with a proud smile. After two narrow defeats under his captaincy in 1991 and 1993, another would have earned him a sorry reputation. He had wanted to resign after the first two but was persuaded to stay on by the players. How ironic it would have been if it had ended in defeat. His first reaction was to round on his critics. "They were calling me a three-time loser," he said triumphantly. But his gloating didn't last long and he was soon claiming that a captain's influence was over-rated. That's probably true of many sports but there is no doubt that his order of play on the last day was a telling factor while Wadkins could be criticised not least for putting the unbeaten Phil Mickelson out last.

But the abiding memory should be of an outstanding match played at a venue that is a strong candidate for the title of best inland course in the world. Not only did it prove more of a problem to the players than they did to each other, Oak Hill was a superb viewing course and the centre of brilliant organisation, although not in the media centre. The traffic arrangements were astonishingly perfect and it all made one wince at the memories of the Belfry.

All this will no doubt be absorbed by Ballesteros as he prepares to make the next Ryder Cup a success of similar proportions. It would be a foolish man who would write him off as a player and the European Tour may be in for a battle if they insist that he becomes a non- playing captain whatever.

As at Oak Hill, Seve will be by no means a passenger in any role. Indeed, he can be relied upon to do most of the driving.