On Sunday afternoon at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande,
Spain, Mark McNulty won the Volvo Masters by seven shots, thus
closing the books on the 1996 European tour and the golf season
on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally.
With that tedium behind us, we can begin concentrating on the
only thing that matters, the Ryder Cup. It's a mere 326 days
until the biennial battle for the trophy donated by British seed
merchant Samuel Ryder, and the Volvo Masters provided a welcome
sneak preview. It will be a momentous occasion when the match
begins at Valderrama next Sept. 26, marking the golden
anniversary of the Ryder Cup as well as the first time the
Europeans have hosted the event outside the British Isles. There
is also the possibility of major changes on both teams, with the
familiar stars who have dominated the 1980s and most of the '90s
being swept aside at last by the next generation.
The love-in at Valderrama last week left little doubt that the
course will be a worthy site. U.S. captain Tom Kite found that
out a month ago when, after winning the OKI Pro-Am in Madrid, he
sneaked down to Sotogrande to tee it up and tour the facilities.
"Valderrama is a spectacular, demanding course, and it's going
to put a lot of players to the test," Kite told local journalists.
Informed of this rave at the Volvo Masters, European captain
Seve Ballesteros formally kicked off the Ryder Cup festivities
with the first instance of back talk. "I'm glad he likes the
course," Ballesteros said with typical swagger. "As I recall, at
Oak Hill [in Rochester, N.Y., where the U.S. lost in '95] the
Americans really liked the course, too."
November 4, 1996
Ballesteros notwithstanding, visitors to Valderrama next
September can expect a warm welcome. The course is perched on
Spain's Costa del Sol, the sunny southern coast, 15 miles
northeast of Gibraltar. The area is so tourist-friendly (and
home to so many British expatriates) that the menus are
bilingual, as are most of the shopkeepers. And if you're
wondering how endemic Ryder Cup fever has become among the
normally golf-apathetic Spaniards, consider that in the tiny
harbor village of Puerto de la Duquesa, 10 miles from
Valderrama, is a bar named Ryder's, in honor of the big event.
Ryder's turned out to be a popular spot with the players and the
caddies during the Volvo Masters, but it was not the hangovers
from San Miguel beer that accounted for the high scores.
McNulty's modest winning score of eight under par, and the fact
that only five of the 66 competitors finished in the red, are a
testament to Valderrama. Although the course plays to just 6,819
yards, its twisty, undulating fairways cut a swath through
nearly 100 bunkers, six lakes, two streams, 3,000 pine trees,
500 olive trees and a forest of cork oaks. "Believe it or not,"
Kite said, referring to the oaks, "this reminds me of Austin,
Texas." Valderrama's greens are multitiered and roll like marble
floors. Players must contend with two prevailing winds, the
warm, dry poniente from the west and the humid, more temperate
levante, which blows easterly. And did we mention the greedy
rough? "Valderrama requires strategy and precision, and that is
why it's going to be a great Ryder Cup venue," says Scottish
stalwart Sam Torrance, who has played on eight Ryder Cup teams.
Las Aves--as it was known until 10 years ago--was built in the
early 1970s by Robert Trent Jones, with the backing of American
real estate mogul Col. Joe McMicking. The course was renamed,
and redesigned by Jones, in 1986, after being purchased by
Bolivian mining billionaire Jaime Ortiz-Patinio. Jones's
makeover was enhanced by the acquisition of a considerable
amount of surrounding property, including an estate named
Valderrama. Jones has called the layout one of his five best.
Valderrama places a premium on risk-reward shots, the kind that
made the '91 Ryder Cup, played at Pete Dye's Ocean Course on
Kiawah Island, S.C., so thrilling. The many shortish, dogleg
par-4s force a player to decide whether to lay up or go for
broke off the tee. The three par-5s on the par-71 course are
reachable in two, depending on the wind. The 4th, a par-5 with a
split fairway and cascading water guarding the green, is
Valderrama's signature hole. "It's probably the best of my
par-5s in the world," says Jones. Adds Miguel Angel Jimenez, a
veteran pro from Spain, "What I like about number 4, and this
course, is that you must have brains to play it, but you also
must have huevos."
Valderrama's beauty matches its shot values. From the 11th
green--the prime lookout--the vistas extend from the Serrania de
Ronda mountains on the north to the Mediterranean Sea and all
the way to the coast of north Africa.
Valderrama, however, is not perfect. There is limited room for
galleries, particularly around many greens. That was O.K. during
the Volvo Masters, which drew light crowds, but, says seven-time
Ryder Cupper Ian Woosnam, "with 30,000 people following only
four matches, it's going to be a bit cozy."
Where all these fans are going to crash for the night is also a
concern. (Both Ryder Cup teams will be sequestered at the swanky
San Roque Club, which is next door to Valderrama and earned high
marks from Kite.) The coastline is dotted with places to stay,
ranging from charming Andalusian villas to utilitarian high-rise
hotels to shockingly cheesy tourist resorts. However, there are
not enough of any of them, even with the four "floating hotels"
(cruise ships that will dock offshore) that will be brought in
for the Ryder Cup, and tales of price gouging are already making
Valderrama has also been criticized for being too short. "This
is not a Ryder Cup course," said David Frost at the Volvo
Masters. "There are too many short holes." That's poppycock,
according to Colin Montgomerie. "Just look at the scores here,"
said Monty. "Par here is a very good score." It certainly was
for him. Monty finished eight over, 16 strokes in back of
McNulty, but he still ended up on top of the European tour's
money list for the fourth straight year, with 875,146 [pounds]
Although the Volvo Masters has been held at Valderrama for nine
years, seemingly giving the Europeans a home-field advantage
next September, there is a widespread feeling that the course is
somehow better suited to the Yanks. "It's a very American
course, too American," says Northern Ireland's Ronan Rafferty,
who feels that Valderrama's imposed hazards and the subsequent
need to play high, marshmallowy approach shots are more typical
of U.S. layouts. It's an interesting debate, but Jimenez says,
"There is too much talk about the course. In the Ryder Cup you
don't compete against the course, you compete against the
player. That is what you need to talk about."
Yes, and there is so much to say. "You hear a lot about all the
good young players in America," says Darren Clarke of Northern
Ireland. "We have some over here, too." Clarke, 28, is a
strapping 6'3" and 17 stone (238 pounds), and 1996 equaled the
best of his six years on tour--he won his second tournament, the
German Masters, and finished eighth on the money list. His
powerful game and fearless style took him to the brink of making
the last two Ryder Cup teams, and he looks like a sure thing in
'97, as he is fourth on the points list. (The top 10
automatically qualify, and Ballesteros, like Kite, has two
Clarke could easily be joined by Alexander Cejka, the Czech
native who lives in Germany and won last year's Volvo Masters as
well as two other tournaments. Cejka, 26, was seduced by the PGA
Tour this season and entered only 12 tournaments in Europe.
"Unfortunately, you can't have the experience of playing in
America and also earn Ryder Cup points in Europe," says Cejka,
who is not among the top 50 on the points list. He is leaning
toward playing a full schedule in Europe next year to make up
for lost time.
The two up-and-comers battling for the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie
of the Year award have displayed enough talent for Ballesteros
to take notice. "[Padraig] Harrington and [Thomas] Bjorn are
very impressive players," says Seve. Both 25-year-olds have won
a tournament this year, Bjorn on the strength of his short game
and Harrington with pluck and a crafty ability to escape
trouble. Bjorn is second on the Ryder Cup points list,
Harrington 19th and heading north. "For the future of the Ryder
Cup we need some young stars to step forward," says Bjorn, whose
victory last month in the Loch Lomond World Invitational made
him the first Dane to win on the European tour. "The same
handful of older players have been carrying us for so long, and
now is our time."
Yes, Nick Faldo remains a pillar, Montgomerie a star, Woosnam
(four wins, second on the money list) had his best year since
1990, and Costantino Rocca (fourth in earnings) continued his
strong play. But after that the lineup gets a bit dodgy.
Four-time Cupper Jose Maria Olazabal's career may be over
because of his arthritic feet, and Torrance is starting to play
like a 43-year-old, with only three top-10 finishes in 20
tournaments. Bernhard Langer (eight straight Cups) hasn't played
so poorly since 1979, having snapped his streak of winning a
tournament in each of 16 straight years, as well as his tour
record of making 68 straight cuts. (He missed three.) And
there's Seve. Suffering from el gripe at the Volvo Masters, he
shot a lethargic 74-76-76-78, finishing 62nd and ending a lousy
year in which he placed 69th on the money list.
As Ballesteros, eight times a Ryder Cupper, continues his
downward spiral, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will
play his way onto the team. With Faldo, now a mainstay on the
U.S. Tour, a no-brainer as one of the captain's selections, will
Ballesteros have the audacity to burn his last pick on himself?
"Ask me next September," he says, between sniffs. "You say you
only have a few questions, but then ask many. It is like the
autograph seekers in restaurants who say, 'I'm sorry to bother
you,' then do it anyway. I should be getting paid as a public
relations man, not a golfer." It was nice to see that
Ballesteros's Ryder Cup responsibilities had not become a strain.
Anyway, the possibilities are tantalizing. "We have only just
started," Seve finally says. "To be talking about the team now
A week at Valderrama has a way of setting the mind to wandering.
"It's nice here, isn't it?" Clarke says. "I think I'll plan to
come back in September."