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Ryder Cup 1997 - Losing not an option in Spain

As one of golf’s most respected broadcasters, Bruce Critchley enjoys a box-seat at the Ryder Cup with the Sky Sports team. In a new book, The Captain’s Challenge – Winning the Ryder Cup, he provides a rare insight into how Europe has won seven of the last 11 contests

Close to twenty years after the continentals first joined Great Britain and Ireland to try to wrest the Ryder Cup from the United States, 1997 was time for the match to be played in mainland Europe. Jack Nicklaus’ suggestion back in the 1970s for it to be Europe rather than just Great Britain and Ireland had been more successful than he might have anticipated – or even wanted – but the addition of Continental players to ‘our’ team had played a significant part in making the event competitive.

There was never really any argument as to which country in Europe the match would go first. Apart from the players it had supplied throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Spain had been hugely supportive of the European Tour in its fledgling years. In the early spring or late autumn,when golfwas no longer possible inmore northern parts, Spain would put together asmany as half a dozen tournaments a year. They wouldn’t be the biggest or the best, but they were competitive weeks at a time when the Tour was trying to provide a reasonable alternative to the overpowering might of the US Tour; and it was in the years before Europe began linking upwith South Africa, Australia and the Far East to turn itself into a year-round circuit.

But it was the players that made Spain the natural choice. Seve Ballesteros led the way, and after Antonio Garrido joined himthat first year in 1979, along cameManuel Pinero, José Maria Canizares, José Rivero and then the best of all Seve’s acolytes, and his great partner for so many years, José Maria Olazábal. For a time the Continentals didn’t make much of an impact, Seve and Garrido winning only 1 point out of 6 between themin 1979, and then Seve falling out with everybody in 1981 and not even playing. It wasn’t till Tony Jacklin took him aside in 1982, drilled into him our awful track record in the match, showed him the possibilities if we could only become competitive, that Seve became imbued with a similar passion.

The ‘unofficial’ team photo: (Back row, l-r): Per-Ulrik Johansson, Ignacio Garrido, Jesper Parnevik, Monty, Lee Westwood, Jose Maria Olazabal, Costantino Rocca,Woosie. (Front row, l-r): Bernhard Langer,Thomas Bjorn, Seve (captain), Nick Faldo, Darren Clarke

There was never any doubt that Seve would be captain when the match came to Spain. His ability to compete at the highest level had been on the wane for some years, and to do well in the Ryder Cup you have to be right at the top of your game. He had not been at his best four years previously at The Belfry, had asked to be left out of one of the series for the first time ever, and then been quite dreadful on the narrow, tree-lined fairways at Oak Hill two years after that. That said, he’d made his contribution by coaxing David Gilford to an unlikely fourball win, and then held the spotlight for a couple of hours against Tom Lehman in the singles, but the standard of his own play must have reduced him to tears. By 1997, there was never any question that he might still play.

So the country and the captain were sorted, it only remained for the right location to be chosen – not as straightforward as you might imagine. Every resort in Spain would have loved the Ryder Cup – the kudos, the exposure and the association would have lasted for years. Many hats were tossed into the ring, but the sheer logistics of staging this massive event were beyond the reach of all but a few. Had there been a course with the space and accessibility close to Madrid that probably would have been first choice; Madrid had always done its stuff on the tournament front, with a couple of events a year in Spain’s heyday. But Madrid is a compact city with narrow streets, heavy traffic and would never have been able to deal with the sheer volume of people involved in the Ryder Cup.

Once Madrid was eliminated, one venue stood out above all others: Valderrama. Almost every year fromthe late 1980s it had hosted the season-ending Volvo Masters, apart from a few years, when one of the World Golf Championships came there instead. It had, therefore, a continuous tournament record, and although not long, its narrow fairways, small greens and exposure to the varied winds of southern Spain always made it tricky and testing.

The selection process had to be seen to be fair and democratic, even though some of the tactics employed by the candidates weren’t. Jaime Ortiz-Patino – owner of Valderrama and a manwith the resources tomake the Ryder Cupwork regardless of obstacles thrown up – looked to seal the deal early by signing Seve to his cause. In a convoluted arrangement he offered Seve a share of future green fees, based on extra business generated by the Ryder Cup, which would earn Seve close to $1 million. For somemonths Seve’s business teamhaggled around the details and then at the last minute Seve threw his weight behind another of the candidates, Novo Sancti Petri, a course Seve had designed near Cadiz.

(Back row l-r): Justin Leonard, Jeff Maggert,Tiger, Brad Faxon, Tom Lehman, Mark Calcevecchia, Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara. (Front row, l-r): Jim Furyk, Davis Love, Jaime Ortiz- Patino (the owner of Valderrama),Tom Kite (captain), Lee Janzen, Phil Mickelson

All this was complicated by the fact Seve was sitting on the Ryder Cup committee, which had the final say in where the match was played! As it transpired, Nuovo Santi Petri was unsuitable for half a dozen reasons and despite some respectable bids from the likes of El Saler in Valencia, and Monte Castillo near Jerez – both of which could have handled the event – Valderrama and Jaime Ortiz-Patino duly got the nod. It was to be a great decision in view of the many logistical hurdles that would be thrown up before the match and the vile weather during it.

Seve would have one other serious matter to deal with before the match got underway, and it concerned one of his fellow countrymen, Miguel Martin. Mainly as a result of winning the Heineken Classic in Australia at the start of the year, Martin had played his way onto the team, albeit in last place. With the best will in the world Martin was little more than a journeyman and Valderrama almost certain to be his only Ryder Cup: understandably, he was very keen to play. Some weeks before the match he damaged his wrist and was out for the best part of two months, but insisted that it would be sufficiently healed for himto play at Valderrama.

You might make allowances for a triedand- tested star to get better, as Bernard Gallacher had done with José Maria Olazábal back in 1995, but a first-timer coming to the Ryder Cup not having played for some time was not what you wanted. Also, waiting in the wings in 11th place in the points list, was none other than Olazábal himself, just back from that debilitating illness and with not quite enough time to qualify as of right.

Seve decided that Miguel Martin must not play and for a couple of weeks a rather unseemly public brawl played out, as he tried to persuade Martin to do the honourable thing and stand down. To the casual observer – and the passionate supporter of the European cause – the removal of Martin and the insertion in his place of Olazábal was absolutely to be desired. Thank goodness all the participants were Spanish – can you imagine a captain of some other nationality attempting to play Seve’s hand and getting away with it! As in all things that really mattered to him, Seve got his way: Martin got in the official team photo, was awarded his colours so to speak, and Seve got Ollie in the team without having to expend one of his wildcards.

After six years and three matches under the captaincy of Bernard Gallacher, playing for Seve was a totally different experience: ‘Sevewas always the leader, just couldn’t help himself,’ recalls Colin Montgomerie. ‘Here we were in Spain; losing just wasn’t an option. It was Seve and the King of Spain; you felt you were part of an irresistible force.’

The Ryder Cup at Valderrama will always be remembered for Seve dashing about in his captain’s buggy, seemingly everywhere at once and, to those steeped in the traditions of the game, taking the prerogative of the captain being able to give advice to his players during a match way beyond acceptable practice: ‘You have to remember, Seve was still only 40, and really felt he should still be playing', Montgomerie sensed. ‘All what appeared to be his interfering came from that. Of course he brought incredible passion to the job and you were very much swept up in the whole emotion of the thing. Once you were committed to the cause though, he really was a bit of a nuisance.’

Seve saw it differently: ‘With important matches, or matches that were close near the end, I tried to get to the tee before they drove. I knew the Americans were always aware of my presence and I think it made them uncomfortable. It always seemed to me we won the hole when I was there.’ Surely only Seve could look you in the eye and make that remark without any sense of irony! ‘I also knew the course better than anyone,’ he went on, ‘so there were many occasions I could help with what shot to play. I won many matchplay titles and sometimes you have to try different things than you would in medal. Jesper Parnevik and Per-Ulrik Johansson were playing the 4th, and even before Tom Lehman played, Per-Ulrik had an 8-iron out to lay up. I say “wait until you see what he does before you decide.” When Lehman hit it on the green, Per-Ulrik then took a 3-wood and also put it on the green.’

Seve’s captaincy was not the democratic rule of Gallacher, it was much nearer a dictatorship. In one of the practice rounds the seasoned quartet of Faldo, Woosnam, Langer and Montgomerie were on the 17th green, a hole that Seve had recently redesigned. Up comes Seve and his buggy, leaps out and questions the group on how they had played the hole; had they laid up, had they gone for the green in two,where had they driven to, that sort of thing.He did not like the answers, and had this illustrious quartet buggied back to the tee to play it all over again, the way he felt it should be played!

Nor was Seve steeped in the finer tenets of man management. In the days leading up to the match, he only really spoke to a handful of the more experienced and successful players – the likes of Langer, Montgomerie and Olazábal: the rest he largely ignored. Ian Woosnam he suspected of not being fully fit, having been at Ian Botham’s son’s wedding the weekend before, and so didn’t play him till the second day and only once before the singles. That Woosnam would take one of the new boys, Thomas Björn, and with him beat Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon wouldn’t have changed Seve’s opinion one iota.

It was a tough baptism for those playing their first Ryder Cup, the tremendous razzmatazz of this first playing of the match outside the UK, and a captain not wholly sympathetic to the insecurities of those for whom it was a whole new experience. Nevertheless, three of them – Björn, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood – would go on to become very much part of European successes for the next decade. Björn in particular was somewhat scathing of his captain. When talking about his singles match against Justin Leonard, in which he lost the first four holes, then rallied to be 1 up and one to play, only to lose the last to halve, he said: ‘Seve walked with me those first four holes, then fortunately went somewhere else.’What happened at the last? ‘Seve reappeared!’

Darren Clarke was nervous too, and made more so by being largely ignored by his captain. He too wouldn’t play till the second day, but at least was given the best possible berth, having Monty as his partner. All square and two to play in themorning fourball against the formidable pairing of Fred Couples and Davis Love,Darren in the rough at 17 and Monty on the fairway, when along comes Seve again: ‘Darren’s ball was lying quite well,’ recalls Monty, ‘but the obvious play was for him to lay up and then I could go for the green; I was well within range. But no, Seve insisted Darren have a go for it, which he did, and well as he hit it, didn’t make the carry. I now had to lay up; the risk of both of us going in the pond was too great. I hit it to 58 yards, the fairways still sopping wet, and there’s Seve at my side telling me, “hit it in softly, feel it in”. In the end I had to tell him to p*** off. Fortunately I did hit a good shot and holed the putt to go 1 up, and a half at the last was good enough.’

For all his mistakes in the subtle art of man management, and his cavalier attitude to the privileges of being captain, Seve brought phenomenal passion to the job, and that compensated for most of his indiscretions. He was, after all, Seve, and he played the role of captaincy much as he had played the game of golf – often naughty, outrageous, but his infectious joi de vivre enabled him to tread on toes, stretch the boundaries of what’s acceptable, and get awaywith it. And of course, he won.

For him, that was everything, as it was for most of us.

Some things he did well. His pairings showed a deep understanding of matching like with like, putting old hands with young talent. Nick Faldo was put in charge of Lee Westwood and together they gathered 2 points out of 4, including a victory over Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara. WoosnamandBjörn got a point, even though both had played only once before the Sunday. Olazábal and Costantino Rocca won 2 points out of 3, and his banker pairing of Monty and Langer also won twice fromthree outings. Langer, by nowa veteran,was given the second morning off to be fit and ready for the singles. Seve thought long and hard about all aspects of his task.

Never one to be hide bound by tradition, he decided that foursomes first were not in the best interests of his team, particularly with four rookies in it. For the first time ever, it was to be fourballs in the morning, foursomes in the afternoon, and so get everyone hitting their own ball as soon as possible. This sort of change is very much in the gift of the home captain, and while Ben Crenshaw, a great traditionalist, would change back two years later, Sam Torrance reversed it once again at The Belfry in 2002, and that is the way it has stayed ever since.

The 1997 American team was different to that at Oak Hill, and considerably stronger. Gone were Peter Jacobsen, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Loren Roberts and Corey Pavin. The Pavin of 1995 would have been a great asset, but shortly after his US Open win of 1995 he had been seduced by a lucrative club contract, gave up his old, quirky Cleveland irons and was never the same again. Into the side came Justin Leonard, by now a major champion after winning The Open at Troon that summer; Mark O’Meara, who would win two of the following year’s majors; Lee Janzen, a year short of winning the US Open for the second time; a young Jim Furyk; and of course the recently arrived Tiger Woods. All in all an up-and-coming side with much dead wood removed and, man for man, more powerful than their opponents.

To balance this, the match was at Valderrama. Originally laid out by Robert Trent Jones, it is surprisingly and pleasantly oldfashioned in design. The greens are small, the fairways narrow, and it is a course that takes a lot of getting to know. There is relatively little rough, but the cork trees lining most fairways give great definition and are far more damaging to errant tee shots than the long rough and shallow fairway bunkers of the modern American course. Perched high up in the hills overlooking Sotogrande, it is also exposed to variable winds either from the North African coast or fromthe hinterland: rare is the day when neither blows at some point.

Most importantly, top European players had been playing there competitively for the best part of ten years. Three days were by no means sufficient to unlock all its secrets, and three days were all the Americans had. Seve certainly didn’t miss the opportunity to tweak the course to suit his team’s chances: ‘They were longer off the tee than we were, so with the help of John Paramour, the tournament referee, instead of the fairways widening out the further you hit it, I had it narrowed down past 300 yards. At the 11th, Tiger Woods, Fred Couples and Davis Love could never use their driver.’ This practice of tuning a course to give the home team an advantage had been pioneered by Jacklin during his time, and has been part of European preparations for the match, when at home, ever since.

After an opening ceremony – Spanish horses, flamenco dancers and the King of Spain – that transcended anything either Britain or the United States had ever put on (sadly, as both the US and Europe tried thereafter to outdo each other in the splendour of the pageant, and quality was ever after sacrificed for quantity) the opening day was dreadful. Overnight the heavens opened and the southern half of Spain was drenched for the best part of twelve hours. As players, officials and spectators stood about in the pre-dawn gloom watching the rain pour down, the odds against a shot being hit that day seemed enormous.

But an unforeseen benefit of being at Valderrama manifested itself. Jaime Ortiz-Patino had spared nothing in making his pride and joy the best course in mainland Europe. Securing the Ryder Cup had been his Holy Grail and he then left nothing to chance in making sure the event was an unmitigated triumph. As part of his preparations, he had put in a drainage system that could have emptied the Mediterranean if there had been somewhere to send it. The rains stopped sometime after 9.00 am and to everyone’s amazement, play was possible around 11.30. The knock-on effect though, was that that day’s play wasn’t completed, nor was the second day finished on time.

For obvious reasons the firstmorning – whether you are captaining Europe or America – you put out your best players in the first series. Everyonewants to get off to a good start. A brief look at Europe’s pairings and it certainly seemed this was one of the strongest line-ups we had ever been able to field. Continuing Seve’s strong Latin theme, JoséMaria Olazábal and Costantino Rocca went first, and whatever else, Davis Love and Phil Mickelson would not have understood a word they were saying. Strangely perhaps, Love was not sent out immediately with his great friend Fred Couples, with whomhe had had such a successful time in the World Cup, winning four years in a row in the early 1990s.

Once again though, the American pairings during the first two days showed their fixation with giving everyone a game each day. They have always seemed prepared to break up even successful partnerships to stick rigidly to this principle, regardless of form shown in the practice rounds. It is almost as though they don’t wish to highlight anyone who may be playing poorly – that and the belief that if you have played your way onto the side then you have earned the right to play each day. A chivalrous way to play the hand when America was winning every contest by a handful of points, but now that Europe was more than competitive and was regularly building considerable leads going into the singles, maybe it was time for America to rethink this strategy.

Perhaps the only surprise in Seve’s run up to the match had been the choice of Jesper Parnevik over Padraig Harrington. Harrington, though a pro for just two years, had already won the Spanish Open in 1996, and had been amember of Great Britain and Ireland’s successful Walker Cup team of 1995. Those familiar with his game knew him to be a born match player, and as a great scrambler, most difficult to play against. Perhaps though, with four newcomers already in the team, Seve felt Parnevik’s experience would be more valuable. As it turned out, he would contribute a win in the first series with Johansson, and 2 invaluable half-points in long drawn foursomes matches with Ignactio Garrido. Both these matches finished the morning after the afternoon on which they had started. By the singles, he and Garrido were spent, but had more than done their job.

With an 11.30 am start, and the first series being fourballs, most of that opening day was consumed by the first four games, especially as three out of the four went to the last green. Olazábal and Rocca did their captain proud, beating Love and Mickelson 1 up, and Parnevik and Johansson eventually did the same to Tom Lehman and Jim Furyk. They had been going comfortably, a couple up midway through the back nine, but at that moment Seve chose to inform them that Johansson would not be playing in the second series, despite being the main provider of birdies round the turn. This spoilt their rhythm, and they only just squeaked home. Most surprisingly, Faldo/Westwood and Langer/Montgomerie both lost, the latter to the much-anticipated pairing of Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara.

Here Seve showed nerve and understanding, keeping both partnerships together for the afternoon foursomes and was rewarded with points from both. Monty and Langer reversed that morning’s defeat against Woods and O’Meara, while Parnevik and Garrido finally shook hands for half a point that Saturday morning. Europe had their noses in front. The second series of fourballs was where Europe eased away. Monty and Clarke, despite Seve’s running interference, led the way against Couples and Love, this obvious pairing finally getting two outings that day, but with nothing to show for it at the end.

Maybe US captain Tom Kite was right at the start not to put them together! Faldo andWestwood were now into their stride and gave Woods and O’Meara their second defeat – starting Woods on his way to a Ryder Cup record of which he will never be proud. Ian Woosnam and Thomas Björn got their 1 point on their only outing the first two days and the one time the Spanish pairing of Olazábal and Garrido got together, they managed half a point against Mickelson and Lehman. The highlight of this game was Garrido getting a full tutorial from Seve as to how to play downhill from the bunker behind the 17th green and duly getting it close enough for a half in four.

Another 2½ points came in the final series of foursomes, with Seve once again getting in on the act as Monty and Langer were trying to get the better of Lee Janzen and Jim Furyk. One up and one to play, Monty for once missed the 18th fairway on the right, under the trees: ‘Seve was there waiting, even before Langer could get to the ball,’ recalls Monty, the memory still fresh a decade later. ‘He had already seen some impossible escape route, a sort of high-flying 3- iron, between branches and a couple of changes of direction, that would get the ball to the green. Only Seve could have thought such a shot possible, and certainly only Seve might have brought it off! Even while he was trying to convince Bernhard that this was the shot to play, Bernhard chipped out onto the fairway.

‘The Americans meanwhile found the front of the green. We were on in three, and not that close. With the light fading, and no one believing any of thematcheswould come down the 18th that day, they had already rolled and triple cut that green in preparation for the early start the following day. Unaware of this, and with the pin at the back, the Americans putted off the green; a 5 was good enough for a half and a win!’

The lead with the singles to come was the biggest Europe had ever taken into the final day, 10½–5½, 5 whole points. At that point, after days seemingly without sleep (various people vouch that he rang them during the week at odd times of the night to discuss progress), Seve finally relaxed. It seemed he of all people thought the job had been done. After days of deep intensity, of keeping his team constantly on their toes, frightened of losing and being made to feel they had failed their leader, he sat back and asked who wanted to play where!

Ignactio Garrido said he would like to go last. He still had his second day foursome to finish and would obviously like as long as possible to recover before going out again. But a rookie in last place?What if the day goes wrong and it all comes down to his match? Then Ian Woosnam, having played only one game out of the four and being light on competitive action that week, asked to go out first. He would have a responsibility to give the lead and get a positive score on the board early, and it would not be as stressful as going out later and finding that it could all come down to his game.

At this point some of the old guard sensed that all this sudden democracy was getting out of hand, and quietly teamed up, telling Seve what they thought was best. As a result, matches 8 to 11 involved Olazábal, Langer, Monty and Faldo, just to tidy things up should it get close. And it did!

Woosnam played the first two holes poorly and was promptly swamped by Fred Couples. Couples, by then having spent nearly twenty years on tour, was still a majestic player capable of superb golf, but could be fragile under pressure. The only way to play successfully against him was to stick with him in the knowledge that in a tight corner his short putting was suspect. He and Woosnam had played one another in the singles both at The Belfry in 1993 and at Oak Hill two years later and halved on each occasion. What had looked a good opening encounter became a beacon for the beleaguered American team. If it had been cricket, Europe had just lost an early wicket.

Per-Ulrik Johansson and Costantino Rocca soon righted the ship, Johansson beating Davis Love 3/2, completing a rotten week for Love, who played four games and lost the lot. Rocca did even better, beating TigerWoods, also on the 16th green: that was 2 of the 4 points needed for victory. Then things got ugly.

Thomas Björn lost the first four holes to Justin Leonard (and only in the nick of time did Seve go elsewhere!), so that match looked gone; O’Meara was soon well up against Parnevik, who’d been involved in those two long-drawn-out affairs with Garrido, and was frankly spent before he went out.Mickelson was quickly 3 up on Darren Clarke, who in the end did well to take the match to the 16th, so once again things were getting tight.

But Olazábal was 2 up and three to play against Lee Janzen. Bernhard Langer, despite being brought back to all square from 3 up early on, then eased away and soon closed out Brad Faxon by 2/1. Monty was down most of the way to Scot Hoch, but pars at 14 and 16 were good enough to put him ahead for the first time, and he seemed to have momentum on his side. But that was it, Faldo played in lacklustre fashion to lose 3/2 to Jim Furyk, a player who had yet to show his full potential, and Garrido could only go through the motions, eventually losing to Tom Lehman by 7/6.

So it was close, but if we could get a point from Olazábal and Montgomerie, then all would be well. Suddenly, a ray of sunshine from an unexpected source. Tommy Björn had not only got back to all square against Leonard, but was actually 1 up and one to play: win that and Europe were home and dry.

But Björn lost the final hole (Seve had returned!), and then Olazábal lost the last three holes to Janzen, and with it a match the Europeans had assumed was theirs. Now the overall match was too close for comfort once again. Monty then lost the 17th. With the last two matches already gone, if he lost the 18th, Europe would have blown a 5-point lead. Two weeks prior to the match, at the Lancome Trophy in Versailles, Monty had done an in-depth interview with Sky Sports, in which he charted his growing seniority in the Ryder Cup through the various slots in which he had played in the singles. In 1991 at Kiawah Island, as a rookie, he’d been hidden away in the middle, but did his reputation no harm by coming back from 4 down and four to play against Mark Calcavecchia to halve. Two years later, he was promoted to third in the team order and duly delivered an early point for Bernard Gallacher. At Oak Hill he was part of Gallacher’s strong middle order, which produced that astonishing last-day fight back.

Now he ruminated that he was ready for the ultimate test and said he hoped he would be somewhere down towards the end at Valderrama, somewhere like 10th spot, and that the whole contest might depend on the outcome of his match. He was indeed playing in the 10th match and had his wish! A half would do, but a win would be a win and so much nicer.

Hoch missed the fairway, and as is so often the case at Valderrama, could not go for the green in two. Monty split the fairway. Hoch made it to the green in three, but was 30 feet away; Monty was comfortably on in two and had two putts for an almost certain win. He got it stone-dead for at worst a half and so victory for Europe. Then Seve intervened for one last time. In the gathering gloom he instructed Monty to concede Hoch’s putt, a putt which, under the circumstances, Hoch would have been most unlikely to hole. The final result was by that narrowest of margins: 14½–13½. It had been much harder than it might have been, but Seve had delivered, in his own inimitable style, victory in Spain.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 





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