Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Ryder Cup 2012 [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Ballesteros' influence felt at Medinah

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

MEDINAH, Ill. -- There is a likeness of him on their golf bags, photos in the team room and the expectation that they will wear his traditional blue and white Sunday wardrobe for the Ryder Cup's singles matches.

Seve Ballesteros passed away in May 2011, but Jose Maria Olazabal is making sure the European Tour icon and former Ryder Cup captain and star is not far from his players' minds this week at Medinah Country Club.

It's only natural.

Seve Ballesteros logo
To honor late Ryder Cup icon Seve Ballesteros, every golf bag of the European team has an image of the Spaniard from his 1984 Open Championship win at St. Andrews.

Olazabal's strongest link to the Ryder Cup is with Ballesteros, the fellow Spaniard who won five major championships but likely just as much acclaim for his role in turning the biennial matches into something other than a U.S. waltz.

Ballesteros played on the first European team to win in 28 years (1985) and first to win on American soil (1987), and he captained the team the first time the matches were played in Spain (a European victory in 1997).

And to say that he served as a mentor to Olazabal, this year's European captain, is as understated as Ballesteros was passionate.

"Without a doubt," said Olazabal, 46, a two-time major champion who played in seven Ryder Cups. "I was a rookie in '87 at Muirfield Village [in Ohio] and he took me under his wing. He made clear to [European captain] Tony Jacklin that he wanted to play with me.

"I will never forget that little walk from the putting green to the first tee. I was shaking like a leaf. It was huge crowds, very loud, similar to what we are going to see here this week. So I kept my head down, and he approached me as we were walking on to the first tee.

"He looked at me and said, 'Jose Maria, you play your game, I'll take care of the rest.' And he did."

Those listening to Olazabal laughed, as that is so much in keeping with Ballesteros' style and charisma.

Olazabal's personality is far from that of his mentor, but he was an exceptionally good learner, especially as it relates to the Ryder Cup. In his seven appearances, Olazabal was 18-8-5.

But the number that jumps out is his record with Ballesteros as a partner: 11-2-2.

"There were the ultimate partnership," said former U.S. player and captain Paul Azinger. "They had naturally what I tried to create as a captain. Seve and Jose were the most perfect pair that's ever been created at a Ryder Cup. Jose was always polite, always a gentleman, always respectful. But you feared him. You just feared him. I don't think he ever missed a putt he had to make against me."

The Spanish partnership began in 1987 and Olazabal never had another partner other than Ballesteros through his first 15 team matches. It wasn't until 1993 -- Olazabal's fourth Ryder Cup -- that he played with someone else, getting grouped with Joakim Haeggman.

Through the 1991 matches at Kiawah, Olazabal and Ballesteros were a stunning 9-1-2.

Azinger was on the losing end of those matches twice, as was Curtis Strange, the 2002 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. At his first Ryder Cup in 1993, current U.S. captain Davis Love III played with Tom Kite and beat Ballesteros and Olazabal -- and then lost to them in the next two matches.

"There was so much talent in that twosome," Strange said. "Seve was the fiery leader, boisterous, contentious, everything you want to put in there. He was the controversial one of the two. Ollie was the stable, quieter kind of do-as-I'm-told partner. More than anything else, Seve and all of his antics didn't upset Ollie. He was stable and played solid."

The duo never played together in another Ryder Cup after a Saturday morning foursomes victory in 1993 over Love and Kite.

In 1995, Ballesteros had clearly lost his game and could have used the help of Olazabal, who was chosen by captain Bernard Gallacher as an at-large selection but withdrew because of a lingering illness. It turned out Olazabal had rheumatoid polyarthritis in his feet, a condition that left him crawling around his home and fearing that his golf career was over.

It was later discovered that the illness was related to issues in his back, and slowly Olazabal began to recover. He played the 1997 Ryder Cup in Spain with Ballesteros as his captain and went 2-2-1.

Olazabal found himself at the center of controversy during the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, where Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the final day at the 17th hole, sparking a wild celebration. The birdie is often cited as having "clinched" the Cup for the Americans, but Olazabal still had his own putt to try to tie.

He missed, assuring the Americans of the half-point necessary to win the Cup. Afterward, Olazabal called for better sportsmanship and etiquette.

"The Brookline crowd was loud but I think the worst atmosphere was Kiawah [in 1991]," he said. "It was the Iraq war and they wanted to relate that to the 'War on the Shore.' I've always enjoyed the Ryder Cup, but that year, from my point of view, the spirit was not what it's supposed to be.

"That, I think, was the turning point. The next U.S. captain, Tom Watson, settled things."

Olazabal played in his last Ryder Cup in 2006 at the K Club in Ireland -- where he fittingly went 3-0, playing four-ball matches with Sergio Garcia and defeating Phil Mickelson in singles.

He then served as vice captain at the 2008 matches at Valhalla for Nick Faldo and again in 2010 for Colin Montgomerie.

Along the way, Olazabal earned the respect and admiration of most, if not all of his peers, including Tiger Woods, who has long been friendly with the Spaniard.

"I got to play with Seve at Augusta [as an amateur], and for me that's when my friendship with Ollie started," Woods said. "He was so nice, same with Seve. They were great, showing me how to hit shots around the greens. Back then Augusta was very different around the greens. You had to hit shots, and they were running through all the repertoire of shots.

"And over the years I've picked his brain so many times about shots around the greens and how he played it and why the bounce does this and that and the body positioning and the hands and all these different things. We've had just a great friendship. I think being paired with him and also the Champions Dinner [at the Masters] and I sat next to him, it's just been a great friendship."

Olazabal's place in the game is secure, with his two Masters wins, his 29 worldwide victories, including 23 on the European Tour. The Ryder Cup record remains there for all to marvel at, especially his partnership with Ballesteros.

The approach to captaincy is far different, but Olazabal is clearly trying to keep Ballestero's memory alive. The image of Ballesteros on the players' bags is from his 1984 Open Championship victory at St. Andrews.

"We came up with the idea that it would be nice to have Seve's silhouette," Olazabal said. "Every time somebody gets to grab a club or something from the bag, they can see the silhouette. I thought it was important for us to have Seve's memory and presence during this week."