Golf legend Seve Ballesteros still looms large over Ryder Cup

Spanish players share anecdotes about their one-time captain ahead of the tournament, which opens in Paris on Friday

Ignacio Garrido, Seve Ballesteros, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Chema Olazabal with the 1997 Ryder Cup trophy.
Ignacio Garrido, Seve Ballesteros, Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Chema Olazabal with the 1997 Ryder Cup trophy.David Cannon (Getty Images)

What was the Spanish golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez doing in a bathrobe at 4.30am, throwing pebbles at the window of the room where Seve Ballesteros and his wife Carmen Botín slept inside the Sotogrande resort in southern Spain? This scene from 1997 illustrates what’s special about the Ryder Cup, the great biennial golf competition between teams from Europe and the US, whose 42nd edition opens in Paris on Friday.

Jiménez was the vice-captain of the European team on that historic year: it was the first time that the Ryder Cup had been held outside the US or the British isles. Holding the tournament in Spain had been a personal quest of Seve’s.

Playing with him entailed a responsibility. You had to keep up a certain level

Manuel Piñero

“Intense, very intense. Everything was very intense around Seve,” recalls Jiménez, who still laughs about that incident. “At 4.30am on Thursday morning, I get a call at my hotel room in Sotogrande. It’s Seve. ‘Miguel, get over here, we have to organize the pairings!’ he says to me. ‘But Seve, it’s four in the morning, let’s get some sleep!’ We had the whole day ahead of us. But he said that it was better to get things done and over with. So I put on a bathrobe and went over. We were staying in different buildings. I figured his wife would be asleep, so I picked up a pebble and threw it at his window. The guards were staring in disbelief... Who knows what they thought? Seve was so excited that he couldn’t sleep. He needed to talk to someone.”

Seve Ballesteros and Miguel Ángel Jiménez are two of 10 Spanish golfers who have participated in the Ryder Cup, the others being Antonio and Ignacio Garrido, José María Cañizares, Pepín Rivero, Manuel Piñero, José María Olazabal, Sergio García and Rafa Cabrera Bello. This club will soon be joined by Jon Rahm, who is playing for Team Europe for the first time this year. For many of them the memories of past Ryder Cups linger, and Seve figures prominently in most.

“He was the driving force,” explains Jiménez. “He was half the team and all of its soul. He went out of his way to help everyone,” adds Pepín Rivero.

In 1989, the entire European group was standing in their uniforms at 8am for the team photo. Except for Seve, who came running down at the last minute, wearing unofficial attire. Sam Torrance looked at the captain, Tony Jacklin, and asked: “Does this mean all the rest of us have to go change?” Such was Seve’s weight in the game. He was an unstoppable force of nature.

Olazabal, the heir

“Golf changed in 1985, the year of the first European victory, and I played with Seve,” recalls Manuel Piñero, who got his start in 1981 against “the best US team: Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino… legends.”

In memory of Celia

Celia Barquín, the young Spanish golfer who was recently murdered in the US, was present at the Ryder Cup through yellow ribbons that the European team wore at the official photo shoot on Tuesday. "After speaking with Celia's mother, we decided to pay this tribute to her," said Captain Thomas Björn.

“In 1985 we lost our inferiority complex. I remember walking with Seve near the seventh hole, a par-three, and the English began screaming ‘Viva España!’ ‘If this keeps up I’m not going to be able to play,’ I told Seve. Emotions were running high, and it was all on his account. Playing with him entailed a responsibility. You had to keep up a certain level. You thought ‘I can’t let him down, I can’t fail’.”

Seve, who died in 2011 from a brain tumor, was a father to them all, but especially to Olazabal, with whom he formed the best golfing duo in history (two defeats in 11 matches). Olazabal would go on to play seven Ryder Cups, once as vice-captain and once as captain in 2012, when he led a miraculous comeback to win the tournament for Europe. But when he started out in 1987, “I was quaking in my shoes.”

“I had never seen such an atmosphere on a golf course, with that boisterous crowd. I was staring down at the ground as I made my way to the first tee, when Seve came up to me and said: ‘José María, you play your game, and I’ll deal with the rest.’ He took all the pressure right off me.”

It was then that Olazabal learned to always listen to his elders, and to use psychology the same way that Seve used it on him: to make his boys feel invincible.

The Ryder mystique

“The excitement that comes with the Ryder Cup is something that cannot be explained, you have to be there,” says Antonio Garrido. In 1979, Seve and himself were the first players from continental Europe to score, on the first year that non-British players were allowed. “They didn’t seem too pleased to see us there,” recalls José María Cañizares, who debuted in 1981. “We felt out of place, but thank heavens we went. Otherwise, it would have been a disaster.” Garrido would be followed by his son Ignacio, and by then Ballesteros was already the team captain. “He was omnipresent,” recalls Ignacio Garrido. “He was at all the holes.”

Jiménez recalls another anecdote from 1997, when Seve was supervising everything at the Spain-based Ryder Cup, from the rooms to the menu. Excellent wine and jamón had been sent to the US Team Room, but the visiting players were not convinced, and they ordered pizza and burgers the second night. Seve did not take it well. Defeating the US was good revenge.

English version by Susana Urra.

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