When Ollie Met Seve
The attitude that typified Jose Maria Olazabal's partnership with Seve Ballesteros will be part of Ollie's Ryder Cup captaincy
On the eve of the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village, European captain Tony Jacklin sent out his players to contest three nine-hole matches. "Play for some money," was the command from the former U.S. Open and British Open champion.
The first group matched Bernhard Langer of Germany and Ken Brown of Scotland against the all-Spanish duo of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. It was the first time the latter pair had played foursomes (alternate shot) together. But it would not be the last.
"We were going at it for $10," says Brown, who was playing with three future captains of the Old World team. "Whenever there was money involved, it was serious for Seve.
But after seven holes--we were on the back nine--Bernhard and I were 2 up. Then they won the 17th when Seve holed out for birdie from a greenside bunker. "By now the atmosphere was getting pretty serious," Brown says. "Bernhard was a tough competitor, and so was I.
But the other two were unbelievable. They so did not want to get beaten. "It actually crossed my mind that it might be better if we didn't beat them. I felt like defeat might damage their confidence. But I didn't have to worry: Ollie holed from 20 feet for birdie to halve the match."
One day later, Ballesteros and Olazabal came to that same 18th green needing only to two-putt from 15 feet to defeat Larry Nelson and Payne Stewart. The first putt, struck too hard by Ballesteros, finished as much as five feet past. Then, with huge pressure suddenly on his 21-year-old shoulders, Olazabal rammed home the winning putt. Dead center.
"Those two putts Ollie holed were vital to everything he and Seve did subsequently," Brown says. "The potential long-term damage to their partnership could have been catastrophic. But, as things turned out, they provided huge boosts for Ollie and showed Seve that he could rely on his compatriot whatever the circumstances. From then on, neither one ever doubted the other."
Eventually, no one else did, either. By the time Ballesteros and Olazabal played their 15th and last Ryder Cup match together--a 2-and-1 defeat of Davis Love III and Tom Kite at The Belfry in 1993--the made-in-Spain partnership had amassed a record of 11-2-2.
A 7-YEAR-OLD'S VIEW OF SEVE
Olazabal first saw Ballesteros when Seve, nine years older, played a tournament at Olazabal's club. "At that time, I think I was 7 years old," Olazabal says. "They played a small tournament, and he played there. The first time I met Seve, I was 16. He had a charity thing back home. He asked me if I wanted to play a match with him and try to raise some money for the charity. I was delighted. I was shocked he asked me. You can imagine how nervous I was. It poured, too. I mean, it rained all day long. It was unbelievable. But we managed to play 18 holes. I really have a wonderful memory of that."
Then came Muirfield Village. "First Ryder Cup for me, no experience at all," Olazabal says. "I think Seve virtually made the decision that he wanted to play with me. That made things much easier for me to start with. He took all the pressure off me. When we stood on that first tee, he said, 'Don't worry about anything. You just hit the ball and try to do your best, and that's it. Forget about the people and everything.' "
"They had such great chemistry and determination," says 11-time European Ryder Cupper Nick Faldo. "They didn't always win, but we always assumed they would. It's amazing how much of a lift the rest of us got from that knowledge. So, great as their record was, they were worth even more points to the team than they put on the scoreboard.
"The way they played didn't hurt," Faldo adds. "You had to assume one of them would hole out, no matter where they were. Of course, getting up-and-down from unlikely spots is the best thing you can do in match play."
Ballesteros and Olazabal often did that, too.
"Tom Kite and I played them in the opening four-ball match in 1987," says two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange. "We had a rules meeting the night before, when it was made clear players should mark if they were going to be on an opponent's through-line [the line a missed putt might travel beyond the hole]. On the first hole, Ollie putts up to three feet or so, but he's on my through-line. Seve is away, just off the green. He wants Jose to putt. I point out that he'll be standing on my through-line. Seve asks if that will bother me. I tell him it will. So he shrugs, walks over to his ball and chips in to win the hole. Incredible. I almost wanted to applaud."
According to Olazabal, that was typical Seve.
"The biggest mistake you can make is assuming you have won a hole before it is over," he says. "At Kiawah Island in 1991, Seve and I were playing Fred Couples and Payne Stewart. At the 16th hole, Seve had maybe a 10-foot putt for birdie. Fred was in the greenside bunker after three shots, and Payne was out of the hole. I turned to Seve and said, 'This is looking good for us.' He was not pleased. He looked at me and said, 'Hang on a minute; let's see what happens.' Sure enough, Fred holed his shot for a par. But Seve wasn't surprised. He was ready and prepared for that. And he holed his putt on top of Freddie. I learned a lot from him in those few minutes."
Good times at the Belfry during the 1989 matches.
Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
That same teacher-pupil relationship also figures to influence Olazabal's style of captaincy at this year's Ryder Cup, the first since Ballesteros' death in 2011. When Ballesteros was Europe's skipper at Valderrama in 1997, his erstwhile partner was an important member of the home squad.
"In his captaincy, Seve was obsessive," Olazabal says with a smile. "He wanted to control everything. He would call [assistant captain] Miguel Angel Jimenez in the middle of the night to discuss ideas. I share Seve's passion for the Ryder Cup, but I will not be doing that.