As the world mourns the passing of golf’s undisputed “King” on the eve of the 41st edition of golf’s biennial contest between the United States and Europe, one has to think that the Americans will have a thirteenth man in the locker room this week as they try to win their first Ryder Cup since 2008. Arnold Palmer loved this event and in six appearances as a player he won a total of 23 points, a record that stood for 24 years until it was broken by Nick Faldo in 1997. How US Captain Davis Love III harnesses the emotion surrounding Palmer’s death could well turn the tables on Darren Clarke’s European team.
For the man who almost singlehandedly redefined the country club game, the Ryder Cup was about something more than playing for money. To Palmer, it was something grander and more personal as it was for Spain’s Seve Ballesteros who was the inspiration behind Europe’s Ryder Cup resurgence. A mainstay of the European team for much of the 80s and 90s, Seve scored 22½ points in 37 matches and his partnership with fellow Spaniard José María Olazábal was the most successful in the history of the competition with 11 wins and two ties in 15 pairs matches. Just as Palmer brought the game to the masses, Ballesteros helped elevate public interest in the Ryder Cup.
If there was a turning point in the modern era of the matches, it was the 1989 event at The Belfry in England that ignited tensions between the teams and saw the beginnings of a feud between Ballesteros and American Paul Azinger. After holding the cup for more than two decades, the United States team lost both the 1985 and 1987 matches and in 1989 the pressure was on the US side. Early in their singles match, Ballesteros sought to change a scuffed ball for a new one under the Rules of Golf and when Azinger disputed whether the ball was unfit for play, Ballesteros reportedly said, “Is this the way you want to play today?” The matches ended in a tie, with the European side retaining the cup.
The tension between the teams and the feud between Ballesteros and Azinger escalated in 1991 at Kiawah Island dubbed “The War on the Shore”. On the first morning of the competition, Azinger and Chip Beck were paired against Ballesteros and José María Olazábal in a foursome match when Azinger accused Ballesteros of gamesmanship for clearing his throat during Beck’s shots. That intensity produced what may be regarded as one of the best pairs matches in history, with the Spaniards winning 2 & 1. The United States won that year and the Ryder Cup became anything but a friendly contest again.
In 2008, Seve was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour and died May 7, 2011, at the age 54. At the 2012 Ryder Cup, the first to be played after his death, the European team wore navy blue and white on the final day, the colours Seve traditionally wore on the last day of a tournament. On their uniforms they stitched the silhouette of the iconic Ballesteros’ “salute” from his win at the 1984 Open Championship.
Fast forward to Hazeltine this week and the swashbuckling image of golf’s first authentic hero and what US Captain Davis Love III does to honor “The King” could well have a profound impact on the American side and the on-going battle for golf’s greatest team prize.