Late Monday afternoon, Jose Maria Olazabal showed up at Medinah Country Club with the Ryder Cup in hand. He had made the flight over the Atlantic Ocean with three European team members and three assistant captains. Our American contingent greeted the Spanish born captain at the putting green in front of the clubhouse.
After a few handshakes and pleasantries, Olazabal and Davis Love III, the U.S. Captain, departed for the media center and the first interviews of the Ryder Cup week. Earlier in the morning, a local Chicago television sports anchor referred to this week as “the Super Bowl on steroids.”
Consider these facts. Over half a billion spectators worldwide will watch the Ryder Cup this week. It will be shown in over 300 countries. There are over 150 television cameras on site at Medinah this week. Prior to that, the most to ever cover a golf tournament anywhere was 81. As Love told his team and their wives, “Just remember every move you make will be on TV, so don’t pick your nose.”
During Monday’s press conference both captains answered a battery of questions. Olazabal explained how the Ryder Cup had changed in the last 15 years. More Europeans are playing the PGA Tour full time these days. Many of those players have residences here in the U.S.
“The players know each other better today,” said the Spaniard. “I think it’s important to feel comfortable in your surroundings and that is certainly the case today with our players. I think that is why we have had success playing over here in recent years.”
Conversely, the Americans typically play one event a year in Europe- the British Open. It’s been 1993 since the U.S. has won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil. There is no doubt that the Euros have adapted better to the road games than the Americans.
Yes, the Ryder Cup is a big deal. This morning at breakfast, Mike Hulbert who is one of the assistant captains for the U.S. relayed a story about Ian Poulter, Englishman who is playing in his fourth Cup match.
Hulbert said that Poulter recalled the first Ryder Cup match that he ever attended. Poulter was 16 years old at the time and he slept in a tent outside The Belfry to watch the Ryder Cup matches. Hulbert said that Poulter knew from that time on that the Ryder Cup was something he would dream about playing in.
Poulter recalled watching the great European team led by Langer, Faldo, Woosnam and Ballesteros. That experience would forever remain etched in Poulter’s mind. It formed the fabric of what Poulter calls his biggest mission in golf. Earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team. It probably explains his 8-3-1 record and the tenacity that he brings to this competition.
This will be the first Ryder Cup since Seve Ballesteros died after a courageous battle with cancer over a year ago. In the history of the modern Ryder Cup there was no more feared opponent than the great Ballesteros. He epitomized the European toughness and the legendary Spaniard had a fierce competitive attitude that carried over to the entire European team.
Ballesteros was also known for intimidation and gamesmanship. He was despised, although respected, by many opponents. But, to his European Ryder Cup teammates he was inspiration and many would say that Seve single handedly transformed the modern day Ryder Cup.
Ballesteros teamed with Olazabal to rack up a 10-2-2 record in Cup matches. The Spanish duo won a total of 12 points playing together. That is twice as many points as any other Ryder Cup partnership has ever won. Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam earned six. Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson are the all-time top American team, winning five points.
Olazabal has dedicated this Ryder Cup to his fallen comrade. When asked about the relationship that he had with Ballesteros, Olazabal was clearly moved. Tears formed in his eyes and his lips quivered. He recognized that Seve had been his mentor and that he had spoken confidentially to Love about some type of a Sunday tribute to Ballesteros. As if the Euros need any more help.
“I remember my first Ryder Cup at The Belfry in 1997. Seve went to Tony Jacklin who was our captain and said that he wanted to play with me,” recalled Olazabal. “We were in the first match out. I was so nervous walking across the bridge from the putting green to the first tee. I could not look up from the ground I was so nervous. When we got to the tee Seve looked at me and said, ‘Jose, just go play your game and I will take care of the rest.’ And he did just that.”
Monday night in the team room, I couldn’t help but look at the America rookies like Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. My thoughts turned to Ballesteros and I wondered what these young pups knew about the great Spaniard and his Ryder Cup legacy.
Ping pong balls were bouncing all over the place. Posters were being signed. Corn hole bags were being tossed. It was a loose atmosphere in the U.S. team room. It was one void of any memories of Ballesteros. In the back of my mind I know that before the week is over they will know more about the great Seve.
Olazabal and the Europeans will be hell bent on leaving a history lesson behind for the Americans.