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Ryder Cup revolutionaries: Seve and Ollie

Story highlights

  • With Jose Marian Olazabal as captain Europe pulled of a stunning turnaround to win the Ryder Cup 14.5-13.5
  • The Spaniard is a two-time Masters champion
  • As a player Olazabal won golf's most famous match on three occasions
  • Spaniard is best remembered for formidable partnership with Ballesteros

It is 1987, and a young Spanish man is absolutely murdering a flamenco dance on the green at Ohio's Muirfield Village.

Around him, star names such as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer are also partying like it's 1999.

And why not? The U.S. team has just tasted defeat on home soil for the first time in arguably golf's most important event, the Ryder Cup -- a competition where a sport usually defined by its individualism becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

"That '87 Ryder Cup really was very special for me and it made me realize how special the event was, and I fell in love with it straight away," recalls said flamenco dancer Jose Maria Olazabal, who 25 years later captained a European team to another stunning Ryder Cup on American soil -- this time at Medinah Country Club in Illinois.

"The atmosphere is unique. You don't have that sort of cheering in any other event in the whole world. You have two teams, the crowd are split in two, they will root for one of the teams. They are really loud," he told CNN before the "miracle of Medinah".

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"If you look at Celtic Manor at the Ryder Cup we played (in 2010), standing at the first tee people were singing -- you don't see that in any other event. And then you have the team members. The camaraderie in that week is unique."

The Ryder Cup is all about partnerships. For the first two days, each captain divides his teams into pairs which compete in a variety of 18-hole match play competitions known as fourballs and foursomes. Only on the final day of singles matches does it become one versus one, and even then the players will be in the unusual situation of cheering on their teammates.

In his second season as a European Tour professional, having already become the first Spaniard to win its top rookie award, Olazabal had the privilege of being paired with one of golf's greatest icons for his Ryder Cup debut: Ballesteros.

"I'd heard about the Ryder Cup, but I never saw one, so I was just amazed at the atmosphere. I'd never seen anything like that before in my life," said Olazabal, who came from the small Basque town of Hondarribia, where his family lived and worked on the local golf course.

Until 1977, the Ryder Cup had always been Great Britain and Ireland against the U.S. Ballesteros helped change that, an exciting Spanish talent who challenged golf's long-established world order.

He was a member of the first European team in 1979 and was a key figure in its breakthrough victory at The Belfry in England in 1985, which was the first year the Americans did not win the title since 1957.

In 1987 Ballesteros began what became the most successful partnership in Ryder Cup history -- out of 15 matches together, he and Olazabal won 11, halved two and lost two.

"That week he took care of everything," Olazabal said. "(Captain) Tony Jacklin didn't know what to do with me because I was a rookie.

"What was he going to do with me -- I didn't have any experience of the Ryder Cup -- and all of a sudden Seve somehow took care of that. I think he approached Tony and said, 'Don't you worry, I'll play with him.'

"I remember walking from the putting green to the first tee on the first day of the match. I was really very, very nervous. He walked next to me and said, 'Jose you just play your game, and I'll take care of the rest.' It was a great relief when I heard that."

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Ballesteros had spotted Olazabal as a future star several years earlier, even before he had won the British Amateur title in 1984.

"I was at home, and I got a phone call asking me if I wanted to play in a charity match against Seve on his home course. First of all, I thought someone was pulling my leg or playing a joke, and I said, 'Come on, it cannot be true.'

"It was true. I went there and I didn't know what to expect -- I knew Seve had won the (British) Open (in 1979). For a 15-year-old to be paired with Seve -- in terrible conditions, I must say, it was pouring with rain -- I had the best time of my life.

"That day was very special, and I think it contributed also to what happened in the future, me pairing with Seve. We understood each other very well, and I think everything was born and happened that day."

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Olazabal grew up on Real Golf Club de San Sebastian, which was developed from farmland. On the day it opened as a nine-hole course, his mother put in the flags for each green. The next day he was born.

"When the landlord sold the land, he sold it under one condition -- that all the people who worked on the land would have a job on the golf course in some way shape or form, either as a greenkeeper or someone working on the clubhouse. That's how my family got the job -- my father became a greenkeeper, and my mum and my grandmother were working in the clubhouse."

In the center of the course there is an old farmhouse where Olazabal grew up -- it is now converted into a caddy hut.

"In those days, only wealthy people played, and they used to come at the weekends or holidays," he recalled. "From Mondays to Fridays there was no one there, so I had the whole golf course for me. As soon as I could walk I was hitting balls."

Olazabal cemented his friendship with Ballesteros, a man nine years his senior, when they played together in U.S. events.

"He had tough beginnings, the same scenario -- he had to play golf on the beach with a three iron," Olazabal said. "I remember him telling me that when he was a caddy -- and he was quite a good player at that stage -- he had to sneak onto the golf course in the middle of the night with the full moon to play a few holes."

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Both began their professional careers in an English-speaking sporting world, without being able to speak much English.

"When I went to the States to play a few events, it was virtually him and I," Olazabal said. "We were on our own, the only Spanish players there, and we spent hours and hours on the golf course together, on the chipping area, having dinner -- he became a mentor for me. He prepared me for what was to come. He knew how difficult it was as a professional.

"It was always a lot of fun with him. He always had stories to tell. He started playing professional golf at the age of 17, he didn't speak a word of English and he started traveling all around the world very quickly."

Like Ballesteros, Olazabal went to the States and conquered the pinnacle of American golf -- the Masters. Like Ballesteros, Olazabal donned the famous Green Jacket at Augusta not once, but twice.

"I owe a lot to the Masters and a lot to the Americans. Without my two Masters I wouldn't be considered the player I am today," he said.

If his first triumph in 1994 was sweet, the second in 1999 represented an incredible victory over adversity after being stricken by rheumatoid polyarthritis in both feet.

"I couldn't walk for two years, I had to watch golf on the tv, I had to watch my peers making birdies. It was one of the toughest moments of my life," Olazabal said.

"Before, I took golf for granted, and all of a sudden you see all those things vanishing. Fortunately enough, I came out of it and was healthy again, and that made me appreciate much more what I have -- everyday life, waking up without pain, being able to do things, enjoying the family and the moment that you're in."

While he enjoyed success in the Masters, later in 1999 Olazabal suffered Ryder Cup heartache when he halved a controversial decisive match with Justin Leonard as the U.S. won the infamous "Battle of Brookline."

He would not play for Europe again until 2006, the year after the last of his 31 professional victories, but his final appearance as a Ryder Cup player was a winning one, as he forged another strong partnership with another Spaniard, Sergio Garcia -- one of the veterans of the current team.

Having been inducted into golf's Hall of Fame in 2009, Olazabal was called up as a vice-captain by Colin Montgomerie during Europe's 2010 victory in Wales, and was a popular choice to take the helm for this year's event.

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"Nothing compares to standing on that first tee, playing the course. Being the captain is the best I can do at the moment. There is always a start and finish to everything," Olazabal said.

This Ryder Cup was the first to be played since the death of Ballesteros, who passed away at the age of 54 in May 2011 following a long battle with brain cancer.

"The good thing about most of the players in the team is they knew Seve," Olazabal said. "They got a call at Celtic Manor from the man himself. It meant a lot to them, so hopefully those memories will be there with the players.

"He was the one who started to change things -- he made us believe that we could win, and hopefully he will be present there."