Monday, October 1, 2012

One for Seve

Seve Ballesteros (1957-2011)
By: Dennis Sherrard

Yesterday,  at the Medinah Country Club in Chicago, Illinois, the 39th Ryder Cup ended in an improbable fashion.  The European Team, captained by Jose Maria Olazabal, came back from an almost insurmountable point deficit to beat the US team 14.5 to 13.5.  I say almost insurmountable because they did it.  They won and won large.  The tournament was special because it was so upside down when compared with previous Ryder Cups and the way the teams have normally played.  This time, the Europeans, normally the best at team play, went into the weekend down 10 points to 6, with Team USA looking nothing like the individualistic, egotistic players who normally played poorly in the first two days which was dominated by team play but then cleaned up on Sunday when they would play their singles matches.  This time, the Americans faltered where they are usually very, very strong and wound up losing 8 of the 12 singles matches, tying one and winning only 3.   The Europeans blistered the Americans on Sunday, with all of the big names in the game; Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, Stricker, Watson (Bubba, for you old guys), Bradley, Simpson, Snedeker, Kuchar all going down to defeat or halving the matches.

For those of you who don't watch golf, the Ryder Cup may not be familiar to you.  It was a competition started in 1927 to foster competition among Great Britain and the United States.  European players joined the Ryder Cup competition in 1979.  Played every two years either in Europe or in the United States, the match consists of a 3 day competition with four rounds of golf played by 12 players on each side.  The first two days consists of team play, either four-ball matches, where each player plays their own ball and the team records the best net score on the hole, or a foursomes match, where each team's players alternate hitting the shots into the green.  On Sunday, the teams square up 12 against 12 in a singles competition.  The scoring is match-play versus stroke play.  Match play means they play to win the hole versus accumulating a score over the entire 18 holes.  You win the match if you win more holes than your competitor. 

This year was a special Ryder Cup match because it was the first since the passing of the great Spanish Player, Seve Ballesteros.  Seve was a remarkable player in the late 1970's through the 1980's.  He was flamboyant, fearless and had a great deal of charisma.  He was the youngest winner of the British Open in 1979 at age 22, and went on to win 5 major championships including two Masters and 3 Open (British) championships as well as 91 won professional tournaments.  Seve was the "Arnold Palmer" of European golf, no one was as wild off the tee, inventive in the rough or devastatingly good around the greens.  He brought European golf to the forefront in terms of tournament attendance and television ratings more than any other person.  Seve was an inventive player, prone to gamesmanship and massive emotion on the course. His face never lied to you in terms of how he was feeling at the moment.  Golf is typically considered a staid, cool and yes boring game. Not when Seve was around.  Seve won a major championship once after hitting a ball from a parking lot onto the green an gaining a birdie.  He flamed out brilliantly as well.  In the 1986 Masters, well known because Nicklaus came roaring back to life after hibernating for 6 years to win, it was Ballesteros who helped him more than anyone.  Going into the 15th hole, Seve was leading the tournament, then proceed to go for the green on a shot that he really didn't need to reach in order to win.  He promptly knocked the ball in the water and fell out of contention in the tournament finishing fourth..

Seve was instrumental in reviving the Ryder Cup into the massive competition it is today.    As described in his Wikipedia entry:  "For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Ballesteros was a mainstay of the European Ryder Cup team. He scored 22½ points in 37 matches against the United States; his partnership with fellow Spaniard José María Olazábal was the most successful in the history of the competition, with 11 wins and two halved matches out of 15 pairs matches.[17] While Ballesteros was a member of European sides that won the Ryder Cup in 1985, retained the Cup in 1987 and 1989, and regained the Cup in 1995, the pinnacle of his career in the competition came in 1997, when he captained the winning European side at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain. This was the first Ryder Cup ever held in continental Europe."

So, it was fitting that his old Ryder Cup team mate Jose Maria Olazabal was the Captain of the European Team this time. Seve was never far away as his image from winning the British Open in 1979 was on the European Team's golf bag.   Another charismatic Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, whose game had gotten so bad that he sat out the last Ryder Cup in Wales in 2010, played very well and attributed his good play to the "spirit of Seve" being around.  Truly, the image of the young, handsome, swashbuckling player was etched on Team Europe's mind after the Saturday Night pep talk their captain gave them where he simply said "He Believed" that this team could come back and win.  Seve used to say "I believe" all the time when he was facing either a tough challenge on the course, or in the last few years of his life as he was battling brain cancer that eventually took his life at too young an age in 2011.   The Euros honored Seve on Sunday by wearing his traditional Navy and White colors and certainly played as if they were inspired.

Another karmic rebound for this tournament deserves note as well. In 1991, at Kiowa Island in the United States, a young, terrific German player named Bernhard Langer missed a 6 foot putt that gave the Americans the Ryder Cup.  This missed putt has haunted Langer over his long and storied career.  Langer sat down recently with another young and great German player, Martin Kymer, already a major champion himself in his own right to discuss how to play under the intense pressure of the Ryder Cup.  It must have been a good talk, because on Sunday, that young German, Mr. Kymer, sank a 6 foot putt to close out the Ryder Cup championship for Team Europe and keep the Cup in Europe.  Mr. Langer must be smiling right now.

The Ryder Cup is my favorite sporting event bar none. It's not the World Series, It's not the Super Bowl,  It's not the World Cup.  It's just golf, but with a difference.  There are no big checks here. The players are playing for their team members and their countries.  You can see grizzled veteran's hands shaking as they stand over a putt that might win or lose a match or the cup.  You can see emotion from normally calm and reserved players. Most of all, you see a comradeship amongst the team members and between the teams themselves.  It is in my view the best tournament there is.  This time, the Europeans won.  And like the incredible Brookline come-back from the Americans in 1999 (by the way, I was in Scotland with my brother and a couple of friends watching this tournament not 50 yards from the first tee box at the Old Course in St. Andrews when Justin Leonard made the putt that won it for the Americans.  The bar-tender, an American himself, spirited us out of the bar before the patrons found out we were yanks, or we might have been tossed in the North Sea), the end result was not expected.  That's the beauty of this tournament, you never know what is going to happen.  This one was wild.  It was surprising.  It was Seve.

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