Ex-caddie who led a crusade

2008-09-19 00:00

OVER the last 20 or so years, the Ryder Cup has provided some of the most stirring sporting dramas imaginable. Till then, it was a routine slaughter as the mighty crushed the meek.

Everything changed from the moment little England became big Europe, for then the underdog found not only hope, but also a standard-bearer in the person of Severiano Ballesteros. Suddenly it was possible to look the Americans in the eye and to dream of victory.

Indeed, the Europeans have become so dominant that they started the contest under way in Valhalla as favourites.

Ballesteros was the most gallant sportsman of his generation. Blessed with a shock of black hair, a determined jaw, a dashing outlook and immense charm, he was as unmistakably Spanish as Carmen. Every step he took spoke of passion, every shot he played told of determination. No mere golf ball dare defy his instructions. He might have been a toreador or a screen charmer.

Instead he took up golf, and brought to it a rare mixture of panache and yearning for the underdog.

Ballesteros did things by his own lights. He learnt to play not at an academy, but with a few rudimentary clubs cut from trees or collected at the course where he worked as a caddy.

When it was quiet, he’d play a few holes with a rusty 6-iron, using it for every stroke, using his hands and his wits and not worrying too much about appearances.

Whereas the Americans played a respectable game, he was inclined to visit car parks on his way to the green, whereupon he’d chip the ball in the hole. Between the escapes, he produced some glorious iron play, but it was his touch and his daring that captured the imagination.

Before long, he carried an entire continent along with him, much as Greg Norman did in Australia, a man with the same charisma, but not as much nerve. But Ballesteros was not all sweetness and light. Inwardly, he seethed about the Americans. He wanted to show them what a poor boy could do in the rich man’s game. It was a cause that became a crusade.

Raised to play polished golf on cultivated courses, practised in the science of precision and not the black magic that seemed to enshroud the Spaniard, the Americans made the mistake of patronising him when he started to win important tournaments, or so he thought. Ballesteros remembered every slight.

It is never wise to offend a warrior and when the chance came, Seve took his revenge. First he went to America and beat them himself, and then he brought a team with him and repeated the feat. The Ryder Cup gave him his chance to put America in its place.

Of course, it helped that Europe was producing its first batch of great players. What was the cause and what the effect? Ballesteros’s fearlessness must have instilled confidence in fellow travellers. It is the way with champions. No longer did the Americans seem invincible.

Nick Faldo emerged, as methodical as Ballesteros was mercurial, but no less committed to the cause. Ian Woosnam came along, a superb ball-striker with a fondness for beer and there was Bernard Langer, the meticulous German with ice in his blood.

Sandy Lyle appeared, a Scotsman blessed with a talent he could never quite tame. Above all, a second Spaniard broke through, Jose-Maria Olazabal, a man with burning eyes and a short game touched by genius. All of them won the Masters, the greatest test golf provides.

And so Ballesteros and pals set out to slay the dragon. Roared on by crowds, the Europeans repeatedly bewildered and brought down their opponents.

Although Seve’s wonky back ended his career, his spirit endured. Other champions emerged — Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomery — making it all look so easy and yet so fragile.

Presently Europe found another astonishing Spaniard in Sergio Garcia, a player blessed with the same touch as his compatriots but not their ability to will the ball into the hole. Garcia stands over a five-footer with the air of a man about to meet his maker. He, too, relishes the Ryder Cup.

But it is not personal with him and so he smiles a lot. The hard work has been done.

The point has been made.

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