When Ollie Met Seve
Olazabal as a teen with Ballesteros in a 1984 event.
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.
"What I will try to impart is his attitude. Perhaps the biggest thing I learned from Seve is to be patient and never, ever give up. He always saw the glass as half full. It didn't matter if he was in a tough situation and the opponents were in good shape. His attitude was always, 'Make a par.' Force the other guys to make a birdie, which is never easy. That was the mentality I learned just by being around him so much.
"Other than that, I will let the players play their own games. They know them better than I do. So I will be there when they need me. Otherwise I will let them be comfortable doing what they normally do."
"Normal" was not a description one could often ascribe to the play of Ballesteros and Olazabal, of course. Their unique brand of interaction caused untold suffering to a succession of Americans. Again at Kiawah in '91, Paul Azinger and Chip Beck lost twice to the Spaniards on the opening day.
"Many times I swore under my breath at the shots they hit," Azinger says, smiling now. "So often I thought Chip and I had them beat. But they just would not go away. Jose is one of the greatest iron players I've ever seen. And Seve took the short game to a whole other place. It was hard to watch but, at the same time, beautiful to reflect on."
'WE WERE ALL OVER THE PLACE'
Perhaps the most memorable example of just how infuriating Ballesteros and Olazabal could be came against Love and Kite at The Belfry in '93.
Photo: Simon Bruty/Getty Images
"We were all over the place," Olazabal says. "We hardly hit a fairway, we barely hit a green, yet we managed to win. They must have been scratching their heads at the end. There were moments when Seve and I smiled or winked at each other during matches like that one. But that was the way we played. We knew on the first tee we would miss fairways and greens. That never surprised us. Our aim was always to keep matches close enough that we would have a chance down the stretch."
Eventually, the joke in the European camp was that no one could beat Seve and Ollie, such was their unyielding and relentless self-belief.
Lanny Wadkins recalls a couple of U.S. players asking captain Raymond Floyd to let them play Ballesteros and Olazabal in a Day 2 four-ball match at The Belfry in 1989. "[Mark] Calcavecchia and Ken Green were saying, 'We want the Spanish Armada--we want to play Ballesteros and Olazabal.' And Raymond goes, 'OK, I think I know right where they're going to be.' The Europeans were so damn predictable, we knew who they were going to put where. Seve got to play where he wanted to play, the whole deal. Calc and Green got waxed [4 and 2]. Then, you know, it was, 'We don't want them anymore.' "
The confidence of Ballesteros and Olazabal was such that "between them, they were also the best caddies," says Billy Foster, who was on Ballesteros' bag in two Ryder Cups.
"It is my firm belief that if Seve had sacked me and hired Jose, he would have won at least three more majors--and vice versa," Foster says. "Dave Renwick [Olazabal's caddie] and I just let them get on with it. They talked through every shot. It was teamwork on a level I will never see repeated."
Foster, who now works for Lee Westwood, is also responsible for the ultimate tribute to the dynamic duo. "Billy's Bar" in the Bingley St. Ives Golf Club is dedicated to Foster, a 46-year-old Yorkshireman and longtime member. On one wall hangs a large photograph. In it, Olazabal and Ballesteros are lining up a putt. Under the photo, in Foster's handwriting, there is a short caption:
"Ryder Cup: Ballesteros and Olazabal versus God and Jesus. Seve and Ollie, 2 up."
Which says it all, really.