Seve Ballesteros – Mr Ryder Cup
Legendary Spaniard Severiano Ballesteros’ charisma and swashbuckling style made him a firm favourite with fans everywhere and it was his Ryder Cup heroics that perhaps live longest in the memory. As Team Europe prepares to take on the Americans for the first time since his passing, we look back at his seminal involvement in the biennial contest.
When Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido stepped onto the first tee at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on September 14, 1979, it launched a revolution that would transform The Ryder Cup and trigger a golfing explosion across the Continent of Europe.
The decision had been taken to include Continental players in a European Ryder Cup Team following a series of one-sided results in favour of the United States. In truth, the timing could not have been more appropriate. Ballesteros had captured the hearts of golfers around the world that summer with his fabulous win in The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes – ironically the last venue to stage the biennial match with a Team from Great Britain and Ireland two years previously.
John Jacobs was made Captain of the first European Team. This, too, was the correct decision. He was recognised as the founding father of The European Tour and now as Captain he made the most of the revolutionary change. Jacobs decided that Ballesteros and Garrido would launch the 1979 match. They won their first two holes, too, although Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins eventually won 2&1. Nevertheless, the two Spaniards had lit the blue touch paper on a new era.
By 1981 there were three Continentals in the Team – Germany’s Bernhard Langer and the Spaniards José Maria Cañizares and Manuel Piñero. Although Ballesteros did not play he was to return to the fold in 1983 courtesy of the persuasive powers of new Captain Tony Jacklin.
In fact, Jacklin – the inspirational choice of the then Executive Director of The European Tour, Ken Schofield – demonstrated, in demanding far-reaching changes, that there was only one way forward for Europe and that was by entering the world of champagne, cashmere and Concorde.
Jacklin’s leadership was pivotal to the progress of European golf – he is unquestionably one of the most influential figures in the history of The Ryder Cup – and he recognised that Ballesteros would make all the difference. The two breakfasted together, discussed the match and, to Jacklin’s delight, some two weeks later Ballesteros agreed he would play.
Ballesteros wore his heart on his sleeve and, such was his ability to blend consummate skill with an unquenchable spirit, The Ryder Cup was the perfect stage for his swashbuckling style. His talent was mercurial; he putted like his life depended on the ball disappearing into the hole and his shot making was exceptional.
Indeed, one such shot took Europe to within a whisker of winning at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in 1983. Ballesteros and Fuzzy Zoeller were all square playing the last.
Ballesteros drove into a bunker; Zoeller found the fairway. Ballesteros faced a shot of almost 250 yards. His caddie mumbled: “There’s no way.”
Ballesteros knew that to reach the green this wooden shot would need to exit the bunker where the lip was at its lowest, fly high with a slice and land as softly as possible. It did, and finished 18 feet from the flag. American Captain Jack Nicklaus looked to the sky in wonderment; Zoeller looked at Ballesteros and, graciously, said: “Hell, Seve, where did that come from?”
Zoeller still talks about that shot 29 years later. He recalls: “It is still the greatest shot I have ever seen – not just in The Ryder Cup but anywhere. I still don’t believe it was possible but Seve saw what no one else would have seen. Then or now.”
Europe did not win that match but Ballesteros swept away any thoughts of despondency in the locker room. He declared this to be the turning point – and he was correct.
In 1985 at The Belfry, Continental Europe supplied five players – Ballesteros, Cañizares, Piñero and José Rivero from Spain and Langer – although Jacklin, sublimely intuitive again, predicted that Sweden would be the next country to provide a player and he was right. The player was Joakim Haeggman in 1993, although to be fair, Italy’s Costantino Rocca also played that year.
Yet history will record that two golfers – Ballesteros and Jacklin – initiated the sweeping changes that galvanised a competition which was on the threshold of losing its appeal.
Jacklin brilliantly captained Europe to victory in 1985 and again in 1987, for the first time on American soil at Muirfield Village, and with a tie in 1989, succeeded in retaining the prized trophy.
Then he stood down as Captain.
“You have got to know when it’s time to quit,” he said. “This is the moment. It’s been an honour and a privilege.”
Meanwhile, Ballesteros would take his number of Ryder Cup appearances as a player to eight, winning 20 points from 37 matches. He formed the greatest Ryder Cup partnership of all time with José Maria Olazábal, winning 11, halving two and losing only two of their matches together.
Then in 1997 he was Captain when The Ryder Cup was hosted for the first time on the Continent, in his native Spain at Club de Golf Valderrama, where he led Europe to a famous win.
It was highly appropriate that year that Continental European players filled half the Team for the first time with Thomas Björn becoming the first Danish Ryder Cup player, alongside Sweden’s Per-Ulrik Johansson and Jesper Parnevik, Spaniards Ignacio Garrido and Olazábal and Italy’s Rocca.
Ballesteros, a Captain Marvel of a leader, was presented with the Cup by the Infanta Maria, daughter of King Juan Carlos, and declared there and then: “This is my best win ever. I have won five Majors, six Order of Merits, many great tournaments around the world, but I have felt nothing like this.
“I am the happiest man in the world. This will go down in history because I am the first non-British Captain to win The Ryder Cup as a Captain and a player. The players in my Team played with heart and that is why we won.”
The Spaniard, who learned his golf on the beaches of Pedreña where he lived until he finally lost a most valiant fight against cancer in May 2011, imparted such spirit on his colleagues from his arrival on the scene it was easy to see why he instantly became the favourite of the fans. His passion, desire, talent, guts and determination brought fame and glory.
For the first time since his passing, a Ryder Cup will be contested without Ballesteros’ involvement, having voiced a moving and inspirational telephone message to Colin Montgomerie’s charges at Celtic Manor in 2010.
His memory, though, and the kaleidoscopic pieces of history he inscribed so indelibly onto the biennial contest, will continue to burn brightly both in the annuls of history and in the minds of Ryder Cup players and sports fans everywhere.
You did not have to like golf to love Seve. Pure and simple – just like hitting a three wood out of a bunker…