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Why Do the Europeans Want to Win So Badly?
Hard to imagine now, but there was a time not so very long ago when you rarely, if ever, read how desperate a player was to earn a spot on his respective Ryder Cup team. There always was something magical and uplifting about representing your country of course, but a week in rainy old Britain in front of meager galleries was never really much of a carrot to dangle in front of America's superstars, especially with no prize money at the end of it and only scant recognition in their home country for yet another victory.
The Europeans, or rather British and Irish players, felt slightly differently perhaps, as for many it was the highlight of a career that could reap only limited rewards with all those U.S. superstars winning all those major championships. British and Irish players rarely got the opportunity to play against the best players in the game - in the American majors at least, so a Ryder Cup was their chance to show the world, the small part watching anyway, how good they could be. Odds were, however, their best wasn't going to be nearly good enough to prevent an awful pasting.
Then a hot-blooded, quick-tempered Spaniard by the name of Seve Ballesteros came along and whipped up a storm that would eventually put the Ryder Cup on the front pages and have players altering their schedules to ensure they played in the tournaments that could ensure them the points they needed to qualify for their team.
In a span of maybe 10 years, from 1983 to 1993, it became a very big deal to make the Ryder Cup team, especially if you were European. Made to feel a distant second-best to American players, the PGA Tour, and American golf in general for so long, European golfers got the bit very firmly wedged between their teeth. Stirred into action - or perhaps bullied into action by the Cantabrian firebrand, little-known golfers from the Old World found themselves playing and beating the New World titans.
Somehow, Ballesteros made the European inferiority complex work in its favor. And after decades of humiliating defeats, the British and Europeans found a way to perform at a level above where their natural talent could take them, and earn historic victories.
Without Ballesteros leading the charge, how else could players such as Paul Way, Manuel Pinero, Jose Rivero, Paul Broadhurst, Joakim Haegmann, David Feherty, Costantino Rocca and David Gilford have risen to such heights? Fine players every one of them. But without the stimulus and energy the Spaniard provided; without him impelling, empowering, pushing, spurring, egging, driving and urging them on, it's unlikely they would have grown the wings Seve so clearly gave them.
Ballesteros wanted to beat the country where people called him "Steve." He wanted to beat the Tour that denied him the access he felt his global status deserved. And he wanted to beat the players who respected him only grudgingly. You could hear it in every questioned rules call, every post-match interview, every desperate cry for his ball to get left or stay right and, some would say, every cough that coincided with an American backswing.
And he instilled the same desire in his teammates. Winning the Ryder Cup became an obsession for Europe's top golfers just as it always had been for Ballesteros. Gilford was a quiet, humble farmer from Cheshire who would have thought it horribly arrogant telling his mother under his breath that he was quite the golfer actually. But at Oak Hill CC in 1995, Ballesteros made him feel like he was the best player in the world. It's highly unlikely Gilford genuinely believed he was, but that really didn't matter. All that did was that Gilford carried a horribly out-of-sorts Ballesteros to a first day four-ball victory, teamed with Bernhard Langer to beat the feared American pair of Corey Pavin and Tom Lehman in the Saturday foursomes, and then beat Brad Faxon in the Sunday singles.
At PGA National in 1983, Ballesteros told captain Tony Jacklin that he felt like Paul Way's father, despite the fact he was only five years older than the Englishman. Jacklin told him to go with it and, together, Ballesteros and Way won two and a half points out of four. On the Sunday, Way beat Curtis Strange in the singles 2 & 1.
The European dozen that this week will collectively attempt to capture its fifth Ryder Cup victory of the 21st century seems as keen as ever to claim the golden chalice. No one would expect anything else. But their motivation for winning at Medinah must surely be different to what it was 20 years ago now that Seve is gone and they play so much golf in the United States. Indeed, not only do the majority of them spend great chunks of their seasons on the left side of the Pond, over half of them live there, too. In fact, Paul Lawrie might be the lone European stalwart who has never even hinted at wanting to join the PGA Tour.
They have no quarrel with the PGA Tour . . . well, the 2011 disagreements over the minimum number of tournaments non-PGA Tour players needed to play in America were molehills compared to the mountain Deane Beman put up against Seve, who rather inflamed the situation by saying the then PGA Tour commissioner was "a little man trying to be a big man."
And many of the players on Team Europe no doubt count the U.S. players among their best friends, certainly their best friends in the game. So, if the innate distrust of American golf(ers) that Ballesteros used to his advantage is no longer shared by the current team of Europeans, why do they still want to win the Ryder Cup so much?
Personal pride is obviously a factor; these are highly competitive people after all. But a large part of it, surely, is a desire to honor Seve.
Just as U.S. professional golfers know they owe a portion of their livelihood to Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, so European golfers are fully aware of the colossal impact Ballesteros had on the game had in their part of the world. Many of the team are too young to have seen Ballesteros play at his best, but each of them speaks his name with hushed reverence. Two years ago at Celtic Manor, Ballesteros spoke to the European squad over the phone in their team room, a move that obviously had the desired effect.
He has not confirmed it yet, but the word is European captain Jose Maria Olazabal will be sending his team out on Sunday in the same colors Ballesteros traditionally wore for the final round of majors - navy blue trousers, navy blue sweater and a white shirt.
"Seve is going to be there in our team in some way or form," Olazabal said on Monday of Ryder Cup week. "We are going to miss him a lot. It's the first time he is not going to be with us. He was a special man."
As ever, the teams appear evenly matched. Europe is top-heavy with four of the top-five golfers in the world, while the Americans enjoy better depth; their lowest-ranked player comes in at No. 23 with the lowest-ranked European down in the 35th spot. The average world ranking of Europe's 12 players is 18.9, compared with 12.1 for the Americans.
Europe's top player just won the PGA Championship by eight strokes, then two of the four FedEx Cup Playoff events. But the man who won the Tour Championship and landed the FedEx Cup at the same time is American. Tiger Woods has won the last two PGA Championships played at Medinah (1999 and 2006), which is good, but Phil Mickelson has in the past publicly condemned the remodel work of Rees Jones (his recent endorsement of Jones's work at Bethpage Black notwithstanding), who has worked on the No. 3 Course at Medinah for the last 10 years . . . which is bad.
Six of one, half-dozen of another. The bookies are going with the Americans, making them the 10/13 favorites in one case. But then they were similarly fancied in 2004 when the Europeans meted out a nine-point thrashing. You have to think a result that lopsided isn't really in the cards this week though. Actually, the ties of 1969 and 1989 are probably more likely to be replicated.
Whatever happens, Seve Ballesteros will be looking down and willing the Europeans to victory. One wonders how his young beneficiaries will respond.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.