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FOCUS ON GOLF / RYDER CUP | Captains Courageous

Seve Ballesteros

It Is Primarily Because of the Spaniard That the Stakes Will Be So High in Spain

September 25, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You are a king by your own fireside, as much as any monarch in his throne.

--Miguel de Cervantes of Don Quixote

*

If Cervantes were still writing, his hero would be Don Seve, tilting at various European and American PGA tour windmills and taking on the Ryder Cup Committee in his spare time.

Seve Ballesteros has been a swashbuckling hero with a keen sense of right and wrong, even if what was right for him was wrong for everyone else. He honed his game with a three-iron as a kid in northern Spain and took it to the highest level, beating real and imagined villains.

And this weekend in southern Spain, the Ryder Cup becomes the Seve Ballesteros Cup, and he would have it no other way.

"It is very possible that if I hadn't played in the 1983 match, the Ryder Cup would not be what it is now," Ballesteros says in his biography, "Seve: Ryder Cup Hero."

"It is possible that the event would have disappeared altogether. It is bad that I have to say so, but I have to because no one else does."

Ballesteros was 26 in 1983--four years after he and countryman Antonio Gallardo, whose son is on this year's team, were the first players from the European continent to play in the Ryder Cup. Before 1979, the U.S. team dominated one from Great Britain, losing only three times since 1927.

Ballesteros was two years past a duel with the European PGA Tour over appearance money that no one really won.

He was a two-time Masters winner and had already won two dozen international events.

As he addressed a ball just under the lip of a bunker on the final day of the '83 Cup, he slashed a three-wood 245 yards to the fringe of the 18th green at PGA National, then made an improbable up-and-down to halve a singles match with Fuzzy Zoeller.

The Americans won, 14 1/2-13 1/2, but the Ryder Cup would never be the same.

Neither would European golf.

"Here is a man who personally grabbed Europe by the scruff of the neck and made it believe it could compete," New Zealand's Frank Nobilo says in Golf World magazine. "He is their Arnold Palmer."

Well, sort of. Palmer has never felt the need to toot his own horn.

"Seeing Sandy [Lyle] and Nick [Faldo] win the British Open and watching Bernhard [Langer] win the Masters, I give a little credit to myself," Ballesteros says in "Seve." "I think I was the one who proved we had the ability to win majors. I think I helped give confidence to the European players."

He's right, for after Ballesteros had won at Greensboro in 1978--becoming the first foreign player to win a tournament the first time he teed it up on the American tour--and after he had won two Masters, European players had a Trans-Atlantic reference point. They had beaten him on their tour, he had beaten the Americans. Why couldn't they?

The Europeans did in the 1985 and '87 Ryder Cups, feeding on Ballesteros, who by then had his own problems with the United States.

Mainly, he had a problem with Deane Beman, head of the U.S. PGA Tour, who had thrown Ballesteros off his circuit after the 1985 season because he had played in only nine events.

The rule said 15, but Ballesteros fashioned a conspiracy in his own mind: American players didn't want him because he was taking their money.

Ballesteros had 26 sponsors' exemptions for 1986 U.S. tournaments he couldn't play.

His mind-set has lingered. Said Ballesteros to Langer after Langer had won the 1985 Masters, "I am happy that it was one of us Europeans that won and not one of them."

It has fueled his play in the Ryder Cup, in which he is 19-12-5 in better-ball, alternate-shot and individual matches, and in which he has become renowned for his coughing on Paul Azinger's backswing, challenges to officials' rulings and eagle-eyed attention to compression changes in Americans' golf balls.

It's all part of his approach to the game.

"If you ever feel sorry for somebody on a golf course, you better go home," says Ballesteros, a suspicious and very private man who has earned millions of dollars, but few friends, playing golf.

"If you don't kill them, they'll kill you."

He has killed plenty with Olazabal, winning 12 of 15 possible Ryder Cup team-play points.

That success prompted the European Ryder Cup Committee to award the matches to the Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, where the event will be held on the continent for the first time.

It was a reward to Ballesteros--in his mind, a bit tardy.

"I'm not saying I won't play if it doesn't come here, but remember one thing: I would be disappointed," he said before the 1993 matches were awarded to the Belfry in England. "I would lose a bit of my desire for the Ryder Cup. People should remember that, without the European players, there probably would be no Ryder Cup. . . . To wait for 1997 would be too late.

"I feel I have played a part in the success of the Ryder Cup. This is the first time I have asked for anything."

It would not be the last.

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