Laureus World Sports Academy member Seve Ballesteros was one of the driving forces behind the European Ryder Cup in the recent past. He last played in the event in 1995 before taking on the captaincy at Valderrama in 1997 when Europe beat the Americans 14Â½-13Â½. Here he looks ahead to the 2008 Ryder Cup which starts today at Valhalla in Kentucky.
For me the Ryder Cup brings back the most special memories. I am always gratified to think that I played a part in helping to revive this competition and make it one of the greatest sports events that takes place today.
On this occasion at Valhalla, my heart as always says that Europe can win, but, if they do, I think it will be a lot closer than many people believe.
Captain Paul Azinger will be hailed as a genius if he can fuse together his American side that in the last few years has been accused of lacking team spirit and stop Europe’s run after three straight wins.
The Americans of course are without World No 1 Tiger Woods, who aggravated a knee injury at his US Open win in June. Whether Woods, who has had a mixed Ryder Cup career, will be a loss to the team has been the subject of much debate. I tend to think that losing the best player in the world can only be a disadvantage.
Both captains have difficult tasks
Of the two captains I am not sure who has the most difficult task. US captain Paul Azinger is hoping to lead his team to their first Ryder Cup win since 1999 in Brookline with almost everyone telling him he has the inferior side. But Nick Faldo faces the pressure of continuing Europe’s successful run of three straight editions if he is to maintain his own reputation as a winner. Azinger has nothing to lose. Faldo is expected to win. In sport when you are expected to do something, it can often be more difficult to achieve.
At the height of his playing career Faldo was very much a loner who got on with the business of winning. Now he must be the opposite and has to be the one to unite his team of individuals. Of course his playing record is superb, and this will make him a good captain. The essential quality a captain must have is the confidence to make what he thinks are the right decisions.
With many people calling for Darren Clarke to be included as a wild card, after his recent win and the fact that he had played in five Ryder Cups, Faldo went for Ian Poulter and Paul Casey instead. He showed he is his own man, prepared to make what he thought was the right, not just the most popular decision, which I think is a good sign.
I remember when I captained the Ryder Cup team at Valderrama in 1997 I had to make some decisions which were not easy. The American captain Tom Kite promised all his players they would play each day of the team matches, and they did, and everybody felt very included and the Americans lost. I decided that three of my senior players Ian Woosnam, Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn should not play on the first day. There was a lot of comment about this decision, but when they all went out on the Saturday they all won. Afterwards Woosie said: “Maybe that’s what I needed. Something to get me mad.”
Azinger is determined to win
I had some clashes with Azinger about gamesmanship and the rules when we were players in 1989 at The Belfry and 1991 at Kiawah Island. He showed then that he was as determined to win as I was. He is an intelligent man who has fought back from cancer. I think he will bring back fighting spirit to the American team, but can he turn a losing team into a winning team?
I think he has been trying to play mind games already. He has said that Europe has one of the strongest teams they have ever brought to the United States, which, with four rookies and three players who have only played once in the Ryder Cup, is clearly a psychological challenge. He says: “I like the team that we have, but I think it’s evident that Europe has a terrific match-play record and team track record and we are going to be underdogs in this event.” The message for Europe is clear. Azinger is trying to make Europe feel over-confident. And over-confidence can be a serious danger.
My fellow Laureus Academy member Jack Nicklaus has taken the opposite view. He has said, “Europe has a lot of good players and a host of very promising young guys. But who among them has a great record? It isn‘t like the 1987 European team that had Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal. We probably didn‘t give them enough credit at the time, but history has proved those guys were great players. It was no accident they won. But there’s no reason the US team should lose this time.”
Europe are not quite as superior…
I stand somewhere in between Azinger and Nicklaus. I believe that both sides have some very strong players and some not so strong players. Europe perhaps are not quite as superior as people think. After Harrington, Westwood, Garcia, Jimenez, Stenson, Poulter and Casey, there is a long tail with a few unproved players. And there are quality players like Justin Rose and Robert Karlsson, who have either had injuries or not had their best seasons.
If you look at a man-by-man analysis, I give the Europeans a slight advantage. However, tactics and team selection will obviously play a big part too, as well as the benefit of home advantage.
This is not just about a loud and enthusiastic crowd. The home captain has the opportunity to prepare the course as he wants it. At Valderrama in 1997, I did what I could to discourage the longer drivers such as Tiger Woods, Davis Love and Phil Mickleson. I had the fairways narrowed at 270 – 280 yards and I put rough across the middle of some others. I remember Nick Faldo telling me that when he played Tiger Woods, the American was only able to use his driver on few occasions.
Valhalla set up will help America
Azinger will be setting up Valhalla to help his team. Since the Americans include a mix of long hitters and strong wedge players and the Europeans again will rely on their accuracy and short-game, you can be sure Valhalla’s fairway landing areas will have been widened. Because the Americans are used to chipping out of deep rough, around the greens you can expect the grass to be long and thick. At The Belfry in 2002, Sam Torrance shaved the grass around the greens because he believed the Europeans were better chippers from tight lies. Also at Valhalla, I expect the new putting surfaces will be faster than the greens at the K Club two years ago, as the Americans are more at home on faster greens.
I have read rumours that Paul Azinger may ask Tiger Woods to talk to his players at Valhalla before the match to inspire them. He is the best golfer in the world and may have won three points last year, but I don‘t see him as a passionate Ryder Cup golfer who can inspire the team. I prefer to believe in the strength of the team in the team room. The golfers on the fairways are not going to be able to turn round and ask Tiger Woods for help when the pressure comes on. Having Tiger there reminds the players they are not the best in the world.
If I was Azinger I would concentrate on pumping up my team, getting the chemistry of the pairings right and trust that my big stars Mickelson and Furyk lead by example and inspire the younger players. Former major winners like Curtis and Leonard have enjoyed big revivals this year and they will also be out to show that they are back. One thing we know, there will be passionate American supporters who will give the team the backing they need.
It is going to be very close. Having won five of the last six Ryder Cups does not necessarily make the next one any easier for Europe. Playing in America is no simple task. But I hope Europe can once again bring the Ryder Cup back. Whoever wins, it is going to be a thriller.