Seve, Ryder Cup almost never happened

5/11/2011 - Golf

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- European nations clamoring to host the Ryder Cup will learn of their fate next week, one winning the right to fork over millions of dollars for the privilege of hosting the 2018 matches.

Spain is one of the countries hoping to secure the Cup, and the mind-boggling figures the European Tour fetches for the rights to golf's biennial match could in no way have been fathomed 28 years ago when Seve Ballesteros sat down for breakfast with Tony Jacklin.

Ballesteros was one of the world's best golfers, Jacklin the newly appointed European Ryder Cup captain, their meeting taking place at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport, England.

"I was there to convince him to be part of the Ryder Cup team," Jacklin said.

As Ballesteros was laid to rest Wednesday in his hometown of Pedrena, Spain, while the Spanish flag flew at half-staff at TPC Sawgrass, site of this week's Players Championship, the tributes continued to flow -- including those regarding Ballesteros' impact on the Ryder Cup.

But at their meeting that day, Jacklin was unsure whether Ballesteros would join him in the challenge of trying to take on the Americans later that year in Florida.

The Spaniard had been denied access to the 1981 team by the European Tour for various transgressions, including a squabble over Ballesteros' acceptance of appearance fees -- and, of all things, for playing too much in America.

And though continental Europe had joined Great Britain and Ireland in 1979 to try to make a competition out of a lackluster series, the Americans had won handily each time.

Against that backdrop, Jacklin -- an Englishman who won the 1969 British Open and the 1970 U.S. Open -- was brought on board to try to turn around the European fortunes.

And he believed Ballesteros was key to the challenge.

"I told him, 'I can't do it without you,'" Jacklin recalled from his Bradenton, Fla., home. "'You're the best player in the world as far as I'm concerned. You're passionate about what you do. I'm passionate about the fact that I think we can make a difference and beat the Americans. I can't possibly do it without you.'

"He agreed. And that was how it all started."

Europe lost that year at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., but the 1983 match came down to the end, with the Americans winning by a single point. Two years later at The Belfry in England, the Europeans won for the first time since 1957. And in 1987, Europe won for the first time on American soil. Two years after that, a tie at The Belfry meant Europe retained the Cup for a third straight year.

Jacklin, 66, captained all four of those teams, and Ballesteros went 12-4-4, never losing more than one match in any single Ryder Cup during that stretch.

That is the period in which the Ryder Cup became relevant again. Europe developed into a force that has helped make the event so compelling today. Starting in 1983, Europe leads 8-5-1. Ballesteros played on seven of those teams and captained another.

"He was unbelievable," Jacklin said. "He was like a one-man army on the golf course, and he was fantastic off the course. I was able to use him to maximum effect in all aspects. I could ask him to sit with a team member. And on the golf course, he was fantastic, made for match play.

"He was such an incredible competitor, especially short game-wise. He could get up and down from anywhere. And there was an infectious enthusiasm to beat America. We both [felt] strongly at that time, given a fair shot, we could do it."

Not even that 1983 loss could dissuade them.

"Seve looked down the line and said, 'This is not a defeat, it's a victory. This is the first time we've ever been close in America,"' Jacklin said. "And of course he was right. We were down in the dumps, but the reality of it was we had put up a performance that was extraordinary. We put that confidence in the home match in '85, and that became the steppingstone to the first win in America in '87.

"Seve was central to all of that. Every general has to have a leader on the field, and Seve sure as hell was spectacular. It was a great time."

What made Ballesteros so great, Jacklin said, was his ability to bring out the best in his partners.

"My problem wasn't with Seve but who to play him with," Jacklin said. "They were in awe of him. Who won't be intimidated?"

Jacklin typically kept Ballesteros with the same partner, and found a true team when countryman Jose Maria Olazabal joined him in 1987. Called the Spanish Armada, they went 11-2-2 as a tandem, the best pairing in Ryder Cup history.

Overall, Ballesteros was 20-12-5 in eight Ryder Cup appearances.

"Seve, when he came on the scene, was a bit like Tiger Woods," Jacklin said. "He had all of this unbelievable talent. He just raised the bar."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.