Even a brief look at the record book shows that choosing the better match player is no easy task when the two options available are Britain’s greatest-ever golfer and Continental Europe’s most inspirational figure. Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros were the leading players for the European Ryder Cup teams of the ’80s and ’90s, helping to make the previously one-sided competition one of the world’s premier sporting events.
Nick and Seve were extraordinarily tough in head-to-head play, even if they were very different personalities who had diametrically opposite styles of play and philosophies. Where Nick was, in his prime, the archetypal “fairways and greens” machine who rarely hit a poor shot and so put relentless pressure on the other side, Seve was a magician, always able to conjure up the recovery shot that could break his opponent’s heart.
Nick played in 11 Ryder Cups, three more than Seve. Overall, their records are eerily similar. Nick recorded 23 wins, 19 losses and four halves; Seve’s winning percentage was better, with 20 wins, 12 losses and five halves.
Then there is Seve’s partnership with Jose Maria Olazabal. They have to be the greatest team in Ryder Cup history, with a record of 11-2-2. What people forget also is that when they were first paired together back in 1987,
Ollie was just a youngster. Seve, as he had done with Paul Way in 1983, was asked to almost coach his less experienced partner round the course, as well as concentrate on his own play. And still he was successful, especially in foursomes, golf’s most difficult match play discipline.
Remember also the influence Seve had on David Gilford during the 1995 Matches at Oak Hill. At a time when he was struggling with his own game, Seve did everything but hit the shots for David as they comfortably defeated Brad Faxon and Peter Jacobsen.
By this time, any detectives among you will have a wee inkling as to where I am headed with what has been a difficult choice. For me, it has to be Seve. Nick may have been the better golfer, but match play isn’t the same as stroke play. Seve was able to dig deeper when it really mattered. That extra dimension, for me, makes the difference.
My mind goes back to the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National. All square with Fuzzy Zoeller, Seve was bunkered in two, more than 200 yards from the 18th green. He then hit a huge slice with a 3-wood from under a high lip to the edge of the green and got half a point. Jack Nicklaus called it the best shot he had ever seen and I am not about to disagree. It was extraordinary, especially as he used an old Toney Penna 3-wood that was the size of today’s putters.
In match play, Seve was the man.