Going into the final qualifying event for the 1997 European Ryder Cup team, Spain’s Miguel Ángel Martín occupied the tenth and final spot on the points list.
His year had started in fine fashion, with a win in the Heineken Classic in Australia. It was his second win on the tour and his first in almost five years. He missed the cut in only one of his next 11 events, culminating in a tie for fifth in the Deutsche Bank Open TPC of Europe at the beginning of June.
He looked a certainty to qualify for his first Ryder Cup team, taking place, appropriately enough, in his home country and with his compatriot Seve Ballesteros captaining the hosts.
Then, out of the blue, he appeared to completely lose his form.
Back-to-back missed cuts at the European Grand Prix and French Open were followed by a solid if unspectacular showing in the Irish Open. At the Loch Lomond World Invitational the week before The Open, the extent of Martin’s problem’s started to become clear.
He withdrew after the opening round citing a wrist injury. He recovered sufficiently to take his place at Royal Troon the following week but ended up with yet another weekend off after rounds of 79 and 72.
Having made almost a quarter of a million Euros in his first 13 events of the season, and averaging 68.35 per round, he had made little over €10,000 from his next five, with a stroke average of 72.9.
Reluctantly, with his form in tatters and his wrist requiring surgery, Martin wrote to the European Tour at the beginning of August to rule himself out of the event.
Writing in his autobiography, Seve recalled: “As soon as I found out, I rang him to see how he was. ‘What’s wrong, Miguel Angel?’ ‘I’ve had a wrist operation and I don’t think I can join the team.’ ‘I’m sorry, it’s a real shame, because if I had known earlier I’d have chosen you as a vice-captain,’ I replied.”
Martin’s withdrawal allowed Jose Maria Olazabal, the man directly below him on the qualification standings, to make the team automatically and enabled Seve to invite Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik to join the team as one of his two picks alongside Nick Faldo.
At the end of August, and with only a month until the match, Seve was preparing to formally announce his team. Before doing so, he was advised by European Tour official David Garland to send a fax to Martin to confirm that he couldn’t play.
“It was a mere formality,” wrote Seve. “To my great surprise, he replied that he was now ready to join the team. He’d clearly had a change of mind.”
Seve discussed the shock news with three senior players on his team: Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and the man who took his place, Olazabal.
“All three agreed it would be difficult for him to be fit enough for a major match at the end of September so soon after such an operation. They felt the best he could do for the team was to withdraw, as Sandy Lyle had done in 1989 and Olazabal in 1995.”
Martin stood firm, even going so far as to allege that a deliberate attempt was being made to remove him from the team in favour of Olazabal. That, according to Seve, was nonsense.
“I’d been on very good terms with Miguel Angel Martin up to that point and, if he’d been in good health, I’d have been delighted to include him in the team. He knew that. Before I had found out about the wrist operation, I’d visited Valderrama to check on the preparation of the course. I had asked for a few changes, such as moving the tee forwards at the tenth because I knew that Martin wasn’t a long hitter.”
It was, in Seve’s words, a ‘messy situation’ – and it was about to get a whole lot messier.
Following the BMW International Open in Germany, which concluded on August 31, a request was made by the tour to Martin to undergo tests to prove his fitness. He declined. Seve contacted his compatriot personally to make the request only to be told of Martin’s fear that they might affect the outcome of his recovery.
As the tour moved on the following week to Switzerland for the European Masters, Seve had still not publicly announced his final line-up. In the background, however, strange things were happening.
“While I was in Switzerland… I discovered that [European Tour chief executive Ken] Schofield had sent Martin a very friendly fax on 2 September inviting him to join the official team delegation,” he later claimed. “Almost simultaneously – I don’t know why – he sent another fax threatening to expel him from the team if he didn’t present himself the next day on the first tee at Valderrama to determine whether he was or wasn’t in a state to play.
“I found out the fax in question also informed him that the captain and the committee were considering excluding him because he was unfit to compete.”
Stunned, Seve immediately called the European Tour’s Ryder Cup director Richard Hills.
“‘Richard, this isn’t right!’” fumed Seve. “‘Why am I being quoted when I wasn’t even at that meeting?’”
For his part, Martin wasn’t prepared to let the matter lie. On Wednesday, September 3, he told reporters: “I'm going straightaway to my lawyers in the morning. It's crazy - a very, very silly decision. I am going to fight as hard as I can.
“They asked me to go to Valderrama but if my doctor says I can't go, then I am not going. I don't know what the Americans are going to make of this.”
He also pointed the finger of blame squarely at one man. “Seve I don't think, wants me in the team. I am positive of that. But I think I could be on the team still and I want to try.”
The bad blood was boiling.
Days later, in Switzerland, Seve told reporters: “Martin is trying to screw everyone. He is like a machine- gun, shooting every way. He is a kamikaze going all the way for the ship. He has been badly advised. I thought he had more intelligence. He is trying to be a hero for the week, a hero for himself.”
Dismissing any suggestion that his compatriot could get back on the team, he added: “Do you think he will be welcome now? We would be out of our mind to change the decision.”
He was even more scornful of Martin’s threat of legal action.
“Miguel Martin stop the Ryder Cup? That little man stop the Ryder Cup? Lawyers can do only so much.”
In a last ditch attempt to prove his fitness, Martin attempted to play the British Masters at Forest of Arden the week before the Ryder Cup. It was a futile effort. He withdrew from the tournament before the first round. “I tried to hit balls but couldn’t do it properly the way I want to,” he said. “It was not hurting, but the balls were not going where I wanted them to and there was a little bit of inflammation afterwards.”
Nonetheless, he followed through on his threat of legal action, a letter from his solicitors arriving at the tour’s headquarters ahead of the match, apparently demanding compensation for his ‘exclusion’.
In a two-line statement, the tour said: “A letter from Miguel Angel Martin’s solicitors has been received. The committee acknowledge this but will be making no further comment.”
It was subsequently speculated that Martin was offered $6,000 in expenses, a team uniform and the right to call himself a team member by way of settlement, a claim the tour moved swiftly to deny.
As the week of the match began, the matter remained unresolved until, suddenly, it was. On the Tuesday at Valderrama, Martin was reinstated to the team as a ‘non-playing member’. He even appeared in one of the official team photos.
Asked by reporters to explain the sudden truce, he said: “All I can do here is be in the newspapers and have my picture taken. [The details] are very private. They will never come out of my heart.”
He returned home to Madrid before the first ball was struck.
The feud stung Seve. “There were journalists who were unsparing in their criticism of me because of the way the team selection had been conducted,” he later wrote. “I am quite sure I acted correctly all the way through but the experience was sufficient to ensure I didn’t continue in my post as Ryder Cup team captain.”
He was drained. He was exhausted. But he had to pick himself back up, dust himself off, get ready to go again.
There was, after all, a match to win.