Despite having a talismanic captain and the support of his compatriots to cheer them on, the Europeans were massive underdogs to win the 1997 Ryder Cup.
That’s no slight on the 12 men in Seve Ballesteros’ side. More a reflection of the sheer awesome firepower US skipper Tom Kite had at his disposal.
The American team comprised eight of the top 13 players on the Official World Golf Ranking. Their ‘worst’ ranked player was Lee Janzen, who was 39th. They had won three of the year’s four major championships and counted, amongst their four rookies, one Tiger Woods. All told, Kite had six major champions to call on.
Europe, on the other hand, had only one player inside the top-10 on the OWGR: world No.5 Colin Montgomerie. No fewer than five of Seve’s 12 men were ranked worse than Janzen.
Despite the relative lack of Ryder Cup experience on the US side – combined, they had played less Ryder Cup matches than Nick Faldo – most bookmakers had them as favourites to regain the trophy. In some places, they were priced as short as 4/9.
Conscious of the threat they posed, Ballesteros worked with Valderrama owner Jaime Ortiz Patiño on a series of course modifications designed to neutralise the Americans’ single biggest advantage: their raw, explosive power off the tee. Nowhere was this most evident than on the par-5 17th.
At Seve’s instruction, a ribbon of thick rough bisected the fairway at 290 yards – the expected landing area of the biggest hitters, such as Woods, Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples – with a large pond built in front of the green. You didn’t need a degree in golf course architecture to understand that Seve was trying to turn a hole that the Americans might otherwise have identified as a great eagle opportunity late in the round into, instead, a one-dimensional ‘three-shotter’. The fairways on several other holes were narrowed, too.
“Seve took the drivers out of their hands,” said Nick Faldo. “Tactically, that was huge.”
Such meticulous attention to detail – whilst derided in some quarters – demonstrated just how desperately Seve wanted to win. Losing wasn’t an option. Losing to the Americans even less so. But losing to the Americans on his home turf in front of his own people? Unthinkable. Inconceivable, even.
“Seve was always the leader,” Colin Montgomerie would later remark. “You felt like you were part of an irresistible force.”
Ignacio Garrido added: “Seve wasn’t so much a captain as a father to us. Every time I found myself thinking, ‘What can I do here?’, he’d appear out of nowhere and tell me what to do. We put our hands on the clubs but Seve was the one who played the shots.”
“He was a nuisance really the way he wanted to play every shot,” added Montgomerie. “He got a map of the underground tunnels and appeared all over the place. He was brilliant but a nuisance because he wanted to play and he saw shots differently to everyone else.”
Ballesteros left his team in no doubt as to what he expected of them.
Montgomerie recalled: “Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and I were practising on the Thursday and we made a real hash of the 17th. Seve was bloody furious and made us all go back and play it again. The whole point of redesigning 17 like he did was to flummox the Americans and give us an advantage but we were making a balls of it. He told us exactly where we had to hit it and we did a better job of it.”
After the various dramas that dominated build-up, the morning of the first day’s play finally dawned – and, as it did, it revealed a nasty, unexpected surprise.
“It was about 6am on Friday morning and I peered out to see what the weather was doing,” said Seve. “It had obviously been raining for a while and it was still pouring down. I felt incredibly frustrated. ‘For God’s sake,’ I thought. ‘Look at that rain! We’re been waiting for two years for the Ryder Cup. We’ve moved heaven and Earth to bring it to Spain and when it’s finally all about to happen, we can’t get on the course.’”
It wasn’t until after 10am that the first shots were hit in the morning’s fourballs – an hour-and-a-half later than scheduled.
Jose Maria Olazabal and Costantino Rocca were out first against Davis Love III – the winner of the US PGA Championship just weeks earlier – and Phil Mickelson. The US duo found themselves two-up through 11 only for Olazabal and Rocca to rally and win up the last. The next two matches also went down the 18th, Fred Couples and Brad Faxon ekeing out a win over Faldo and Lee Westwood with the all-Swedish pairing of Jesper Parnevik and Per-Ulrik Johansson taking down Tom Lehman and Jim Furyk. Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara combined to defeated Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer to leave honours even after the opening session.
Seve sprang a surprise with his pairings for the afternoon’s foursomes, leaving out Ian Woosnam, Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn, meaning that none of them featured at all on day one. It was a gamble – but one that paid off. Europe won the sessions 2.5-1.5 to take a slender 4.5-3.5 lead into day two.
All three of the players who he’d left out of the opening day figured in the Saturday morning’s fourballs and, keen to make up for lost time, each contributed to what was a near-perfect session for the Euros. Clarke teamed-up with Montgomerie to defeat Couples and Love. Woosnam and Bjorn then combined to beat Faxon and Open champion Justin Leonard 2&1, Faldo and Westwood beating Woods and O’Meara by the same score in match three. It was left to Mickelson and Lehman to salvage a half from the final match of the morning against Olazabal and Garrido and, in doing so, prevent a blue and yellow whitewash.
Things didn’t get much better for the US in the afternoon. As light faded, only the opening match of the foursomes session was concluded that evening, Montgomerie and Langer snatching a one-up win over Lee Janzen and Jim Furyk. The remaining three matches were left to conclude the next day meaning that, during the course of the entire Saturday, the Americans had failed to win a full point. You had to go back to the opening match of the Friday afternoon foursomes, in fact, for their most recent win.
“What happened that Saturday?” Tom Lehman would later reflect. “Europe just made tons of putts and we didn’t make squat. That the real difference between the teams – but what a difference it was.”
When the Saturday foursomes resumed on Sunday morning, Scott Hoch and Jeff Maggert claimed a long overdue point for the US with a 2&1 win over Faldo and Westwood. Parnevik and Garrido took a half-point from their match with Leonard and Woods, whilst Olazabal and Rocca trounced Love and Couples 5&4.
It all added up to a 10.5-5.5 lead for Europe heading into the singles. Four points would suffice to retain the trophy. Four-and-a-half would win it outright for the second match in a row.
Kite’s men came out swinging for the fences and won three of the opening four matches. Couples hammered Woosnam 8&7. O’Meara thumped Parnevik 3&2; Mickelson scalped Clarke 2&1. Only a 3&2 defeat of Love by Johansson – who had been benched for the whole of Saturday – interrupted the American juggernaut.
Rocca caused an upset when he defeated Tiger Woods 4&2 in match five – that despite his captain’s unwelcome interruption as the match neared its conclusion. “As I was standing on the [16th] tee, Seve had warned me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t miss right’,” the Italian would later reveal. “So, I hit my tee shot right, straight in among some cork trees. It was a bad situation.” Fortunately, he recovered to halve the hole and seal a famous personal victory.
Lehman made short work of Garrido, winning 7&6, before Bjorn halved with Leonard.
That took the score to 13-10. Europe were one point from retaining the trophy and a point-and-a-half from winning it outright.
Attention switched to the match between Langer and Faxon. With the German one-up and in the hole on the 17th (where else!), Faxon needed to hole a tricky ten-footer to extend the match and maintaining the USA’s hopes of victory.
The crowd erupted.
Europe had an unassailable 14-10 lead.
The cup was staying in Europe.
The outright win, though. That was still in the balance. Maggert beat Westwood 3&2. Janzen defeated Westwood at the 18th. Furyk saw off Faldo 3&2. Suddenly, it was 14-13. The US couldn’t win but they could still spoil the part if Scott Hoch could somehow defeat Montgomerie in the final match.
They arrived at the 18th all-square. Hoch played first. His took his drive down the left-hand side but his ball clipped a branch on the last tree.
“I thought, ‘I really need my driver for this but I can draw my 3-wood easier as it’s got more loft,’” Montgomerie later revealed. “As soon as I hit it, I knew that it was perfect.” So perfect, in fact, that it won the European Tour ‘Shot of the Year’ later in 1997.
Hoch hacked out of the rough and left his ball short left of the green. Montgomerie flushed a 9-iron to 15 feet. Hoch’s chip came up well short, just inside the Scot.
Montgomerie putt for the win came up an inch short, which Hoch conceded. It was enough for the half-point required for Europe to win the trophy outright but the American still had a tricky 12-foot putt to prevent the stain of a defeat from blotting his own, personal copybook.
“I backed off to see if Scott could make the putt,” recalled Monty. “And then I saw Seve starting to run onto the green and people started to clap. I remember thinking, ‘He’s going to give it him.’ And he did. He shook Scott’s hand and it was over.”
Montgomerie wasn’t particularly pleased. Even less happy were the many people who emailed him in the weeks that followed with betting slips attached that had the match finishing 15-13 in Europe’s favour.
Monty said: “I replied to them all saying, ‘Look, it wasn’t my decision and I’m sorry for your bet but speak to the captain about this. I wanted to finish the job.'
“The Ryder Cup should be played to a finish. Imagine if someone had done that to Seve. He wouldn’t have appreciated it!”
Nonetheless, in the bigger picture, it didn’t particularly matter.
Europe had won the Ryder Cup in Spain with Seve as captain. The fairytale had played out as intended. That was the bottom line.
“The day after our victory, I lay in bed mentally reviewing everything that had happened both before and during that week,” he later reflected. “I felt exhausted. I felt I’d returned from the battlefield. But I felt very happy because all the effort to persuade the Ryder Cup committee to play the tournament in Spain had been rewarded with success.”
It had been a long road. Longer, no doubt, than he had ever anticipated. But Seve, the man who changed golf’s most high-profile competition through sheer talent and passion and stubborn perseverance, had completed his journey with the Ryder Cup.
He left the stage the way he deserved.
As a winner.
Want more on the 1997 Ryder Cup? In fact, every Ryder Cup that's every been played? Get yourself a copy of Behind The Ryder Cup: The Players' Stories by Peter Burns and Ed Hodge. Available here.