Column: A silhouette recalls why Ryder Cup matters
MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) — Every time a European player reaches for a club during the Ryder Cup, it's almost as if Seve Ballesteros were still looking on. A year after his death, the Spaniard's fist-pumping silhouette is emblazoned front and center on their golf bags, a reminder to a new generation why this event came to matter so much in the first place.
"This was one way that Seve could be with us every step of the way," said European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, Ballesteros' longtime playing partner and pal.
Ballesteros died in May 2011 from complications associated with a cancerous brain tumor. With the exception of the captains and their assistants, the only golfer on either team who actually played alongside or against the fiercest competitor of his generation was American Phil Mickelson.
Yet U.S. captain Davis Love can still recall the details from his run-ins with Ballesteros nearly 20 years ago. He was paired with Tom Kite in his first Ryder Cup in 1993 when he drew the Ballesteros-Olazabal team three times. The Americans won the first meeting — one of only two the Spanish duo would lose over the course of 15 matches together — and then wound up getting beat in the next two.
Considering some of the out-of-the-way places from which Ballesteros conjured up magical shots to snatch away momentum or win matches, you have to wonder whether there was some humor intended in Davis' gift to Europe's players — yardage books with that same silhouette inside.
"Jose Maria and I talked a lot about some different things we needed to do to help honor Seve. ... I know it's emotional for him," Love said about Olazabal. "But it's emotional, I'm sure, for Fred Couples or Paul Azinger or Phil (Mickelson). We competed against him."
Until Ballesteros came along in 1979 — when players from continental Europe were added — the Ryder Cup was a sleepy, one-sided affair. The best U.S. golfers interrupted their schedules just long enough to show up, roll up big winning margins against their Britain-Ireland rivals, then stay for a few drinks and hearty backslaps and leave with the hardware.
Ballesteros was having none of that. Friendship took a backseat to winning. So did sportsmanship at times, if some of the stories about him jangling coins in his pocket or coughing in the middle of an opponent's backswing were true. And because that little biennial competition came to matter so much to Ballesteros, he made sure it mattered to Olazabal and every other one of the less-talented players with whom he shared the team room at Ryder Cups.
Ballesteros hit his last shot in 1995, helping Europe win or retain the Cup four times in his eight appearances as a player. The first of those wins, in 1985, reversed a losing streak stretching nearly three decades. He returned as Europe's captain in 1997, when the Cup traveled to Spain largely as a tribute to Ballesteros' contributions
It was the last time he appeared in public at a Ryder Cup. As his business interests grew and his illness took its toll, Ballesteros became more and more an inspirational figure in the distance. Two years ago in Wales, too sick to travel from his home on Spain's wind-swept northern coast, he spoke to the team via telephone hookup. Many of the same players whose careers he influenced — and in some cases, helped launch — made no effort to hide their tears.
"This is the first time since then that he has not been present in any way," Olazabal said, as though he felt a need to justify the use of Ballesteros' silhouette.
"Seve was an important part of the Ryder Cup because of the way he played and conducted himself, from his opening match in 1979."
That echoed something golfers from different times and places almost always mentioned.
In the summer of 2010, the same illness forced Ballesteros to miss a scheduled exhibition of past champions at St. Andrews commemorating the 150th anniversary of the game's oldest major. A sand wedge and a pair of worn white golf shoes from his 1984 win there sat in a glass case in the Old Course Museum across the street. A photograph nearby showed him in the fist-pumping profile that became his silhouette.
Despite winning three British Opens, two Masters and almost single-handedly reviving the game for an entire continent — much like Palmer on this side of the pond — Ballesteros was always more respected than loved over here. Maybe the language barrier was why all that charisma and all those remarkable recovery shots got lost in translation. Or maybe what put Americans off was simply Ballesteros' competitiveness and over-the-top delight at punishing the U.S. squad in every Ryder Cup he was part of.
"That only made him more of a hero to us," countryman Miguel Angel Jimenez recalled back in 2010. "There were so few models for many of us when we began playing, but it was not just his swing. It was how he walked, like a leader all the time, how he never lost his fighting spirit, no matter how much trouble he was in.
"It was so many things," he added. "So many."
And now there is one more.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.