In 1997, Real Club Valderamma became the first course in continental Europe to host The Ryder Cup, as the legendary Seve Ballesteros led Europe to victory on home soil. Thomas Bjørn, who made his Ryder Cup debut that week, shares his own memories of that unforgettable contest.
Flying out to Spain with my heroes was special. I was just 26 when I made my debut back in 1997 and I had only been on the European Tour 18 months. There was a transition going on in European golf. Apart from Sandy Lyle, we had all those heroes from the 1980s in the team – Faldo, Ollie, Woosie, Bernhard. They were the backbone of the 1997 team, then you had all these young players coming through, like Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and me.
It was a great balanced team. Nick and Seve were my big heroes. When we all met up at Heathrow, it was just a majestic scene for someone who had only been on Tour 18 months. If you come on Tour and make the first Ryder Cup available to you, it can be quite a daunting thing.
Things were happening so fast for me. To get everyone you aspire to be in the same room was daunting, but also very special. It is easy to forget some of the great moments in your career, because so much happens to you, but for me that was a moment that I will always look back on as being special.
Woosie was a massive help to me. I didn’t play on the first morning, but I watched the first guys tee off and then I sat on the buggy for nine holes with Seve. I just took in the atmosphere to see what it was. We got back to the hotel that Friday night and Seve and Woosie came up to me and told me I was playing with Woosie the next day. We went out and won that first match against Justin Leonard and Brad Faxon and it made me feel that I was part of the whole thing.
I was very fortunate as I played with Woosie as he was fantastic. He spent time with me at breakfast and on the range and told me just to play my golf. He took care of the first few holes to keep us alive and then we got on the back nine and I started playing well and holing some putts and we managed to win 2&1. As a young player it was really easy to trust a player with the experience of Woosie.
He probably played better by taking on that role of helping me through. This golf course is daunting in itself, but you add the pressure of The Ryder Cup and then the pressure of playing in your first Ryder Cup, and it was really daunting. image:
My singles match against Justin Leonard was unbelievable. I played Leonard in the singles and he was one of the best wedge players in the world, and on his day, on great greens, he was one of the best putters. He was a real superstar of the time, so I knew it would be tough. I was one over par after four holes and I was four down. I was a bit shellshocked to be honest, and Seve came to me on the fifth tee and said we need to play strokeplay. I said to him, “I’m one over par after four, which is not a complete disaster round here”.
I just tried to get one hole back at a time and it turned into an unbelievable match. I won the fifth hole and then we halved six and seven and then we didn’t halve a hole again after that. I birdied eight and nine to get all square then it just kept changing hands on the back nine. The next time I saw Seve was on the 17th and he looked like he was going to have a heart attack as it was so tight. He was desperate to win. I holed a putt on the 17th to go one up and it felt like such a relief, so I was gutted I didn’t finish it off.
That is one of the few regrets I have. I had worked so hard to get back, then to walk on to the 17th green, which was like a football stadium, and leave it one up was a massive relief. Then to go to 18 was almost an anti-climax, as it was much smaller. I bogeyed the last and Justin got up and down from the bunker for par. In the balance of the match it was a fair result, because it was a fantastic match, and in the end Europe won, but at the time I was gutted. Seve said to me it could be the half point that won the Ryder Cup, but I thought it could be the one that lost it.
Seve mentioned so many times in the years after that my match was so important in his eyes because the rest of the team benefited from seeing me fight back from four over. My favourite Ryder Cup moment hands down was my fourball with Darren when we beat Tiger and Paul Azinger at the Belfry in 2002. Our friendship, the way we played and the way we finished it off was something special. But my singles match against Leonard in 1997 was also a magnificent moment in my career. It formed me as a player. It would have been easy to have lost everything being four down after four holes, but it showed me that it is never over and you have to keep fighting. That has stayed with me.
We had to win it for Seve. The Ryder Cup is intense enough, but that week there was so much extra attention with it being the first one on the continent and with Seve being captain in Spain. All week you had that feeling we have to win because of Seve. We couldn’t let him down. He had been everything to European Ryder Cup Teams, and we simply could not let him down.
I had such a great relationship with Seve. I’d played so much golf with him that year, so when I was in the situation of my first Ryder Cup, I had him to lean on. Seve knew he had a team containing unbelievable experience, with some big personalities who had achieved a lot, and then he had all these young players who he had to show the way. So as a captain he had a difficult job as there was such a big divide. The week itself was at best chaotic, but he dealt with that challenge well.
It is very easy as a captain to grow a great relationship with your players going into a Ryder Cup, but my fondest memories of Seve are actually from after the 1997 Ryder Cup. He stayed true to that friendship we had and I could always approach him. He gave so much to me after 1997, because of the memories we had. He realised we had done something great together, and he gave more to me than he did to most. I played practice rounds with him at Augusta. Seve just had such a different outlook. He came from a different world into this game. Winning was the only thing to him. He didn’t care how we played.
I learned so much from him in that respect. When I look back at the wins I’ve had in my career, I can only say there are two or three of them that I’ve played great, but I can find quite a few where I just wanted to win so much, and that came from Seve. It’s not until they are gone that you miss your memories so much. Seve was one of my heroes growing up and sometimes you can meet your heroes and they disappoint you, but Seve didn’t. He was fantastic to me
The 1997 Ryder Cup changed perspectives. When I started out on my career, the thought of a Dane winning on the European Tour was so farfetched. If you said you were going to win, people laughed at you. When I won in Loch Lomond in 1996, that all changed. Now people at home almost expect Danes to win and it is a completely different set of problems. The effect that win had was amazing. Then going on to play in The Ryder Cup transformed everything.
It’s almost a complete blur for me now, looking back. People had a difficult time to keep up with it. The 1997 Ryder Cup was obviously a massive thing, not only for me but for the whole of Danish golf. It changed the whole outlook. You then had other Danish players believing they could do it, and you saw Anders Hansen win at Wentworth and Søren Kjeldsen win here at Valderamma, which are big tournaments on tough courses, and Søren Hansen made the Ryder Cup team at Valhalla, and all of a sudden it wasn’t just me.
Now people are expecting Søren Kjeldsen to qualify for the Ryder Cup Team, so he is having to keep those expectations down, whereas in 1997 if I told people I hoped to make it they would have laughed at me, so I kept it quiet. Perspectives have certainly changed since then.
Experience could help me this week. On a golf course like this, experience is everything. You have to have some sort of game and control, of course, but experience is crucial. You can’t get ahead of yourself here. It is like Augusta in that there is a fine line between a great shot and a disaster.
I’ve got a decent record here – I was fifth here in the 2010 Andalucía Masters and ninth in the 2007 Volvo Masters – and I’ve always had the attitude of just grinding it out, knowing that people will make mistakes. If I had the attitude I have at Valderrama elsewhere in my career, I would have achieved more. A lot of it stems back to that Ryder Cup and the way Seve prepared us to play this golf course. I had the chance to listen to some of the best players of all time talking about how they would play this course. If you don’t take that in, there is something wrong with you. I’ve no expectation whatsoever this week because I’ve been really struggling with my back this year. I played well in Abu Dhabi and then got to Dubai and I was hurting so much. I literally was lying down for six weeks after that. I only started hitting balls last week and I’ve got a long way to go, but I need to get myself healthy again.
I’m working on getting ready for 2017, and what happens between now and then is a process. I’ve had serious injuries over the years, but this one was a real scare. There were a few moments after three or four weeks where I thought I might never play again. It’s cleared up well enough for me to play now but where I am golf-wise I probably shouldn’t have come here to play, but I was just dying to play Valderrama again. It means that much to me.