By DOUG FERGUSON
Their Ryder Cup rivalry was so fierce that Seve Ballesteros once referred to the U.S. team as “11 nice guys and Paul Azinger.”
But when Azinger was stricken with cancer in 1993, Ballesteros was among the first to call.
“He called the house a couple of times and my parents relayed the message,” Azinger recalled Tuesday morning. “That shows you what kind of guy he is. We had an intense rivalry, but you reach beyond that. Rivalries can be healthy, and maybe they cross the line on occasion. But when real life things happen, people reach out to each other.
“I’ll try to call Seve once things calm down.”
Azinger can only hope that Ballesteros can find a way out, as he did so often in a career defined by amazing recoveries. The five-time major champion was diagnosed with a brain tumor over the weekend, and he was in a Madrid hospital awaiting results of a biopsy to determine the scope and severity.
“No matter what it is, he’ll take a positive outlook and be thorough and do everything right,” Azinger said. “But it’s scary.”
Azinger was diagnosed with lymphoma at the end of the 1993 season, after winning his only major at the PGA Championship and battling Nick Faldo to a draw in a memorable singles match in the Ryder Cup.
He overcame cancer in the peak of his career, but his only role in the next Ryder Cup at Oak Hill was as a television analyst. Even then, he wound up in the same match with Ballesteros — holding a microphone as the Spaniard performed one magical escape after another against Tom Lehman in the leadoff singles.
On the opening hole, Ballesteros hooked his tee shot some 30 yards left of the fairway. The gallery circled around Ballesteros as he played his approach, prompting Azinger to say, “They might want to be careful. You know, he didn’t hit over here on purpose.”
Later in the match, Ballesteros was stymied by a massive tree on No. 5, and Azinger reported that his options were to pitch sideways or to play a sharp hook through a gap in the trees to the right. Defying logic, Ballesteros took it over the tree, with enough power to reach the green. He halved the hole with a par.
That all took place in one hour.
Consider the better part of three decades, and the stories of spectacular shots by Ballesteros are endless.
There was the bump-and-run that threaded the bunkers on the final hole at Royal Birkdale when Ballesteros was 19 and tied for second. He won three years later with a shot from the car park. One of the greatest shots Jack Nicklaus ever saw was Ballesteros hitting 3-wood from beneath the lip of a bunker and reaching the green from 245 yards away in the 1983 Ryder Cup.
Years later, he put on a clinic in the short game at The Players Championship.
“He was hitting these 3-irons from a greenside bunker closer than Nicklaus could hit his sand wedge,” Azinger said. “Jack got up there with a 3-iron and was skulling it into the bank. I don’t even think it’s arguable that Seve had the best hands of anyone who ever played.”
He’ll get no argument from Brad Faxon, who won’t forget his first “Seve moment.”
Faxon was 26 and playing only his second British Open in 1988, elated that his closing 71 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes put him a tie for 11th and made him exempt for next year.
He pulled up a chair in the clubhouse to watch through a tiny window as the final group came up the 18th fairway. Ballesteros was one shot ahead of Nick Price, but the Spaniard was in trouble, some 50 feet from the flag in an awkward lie in the rough.
“He was long and left and needed to get up-and-down,” Faxon said Tuesday. “And he almost holed it. It stopped 2 inches away, and that pretty much knocked out Price’s chances. I was young, and watching him do that up close, the way he reacted and the way the crowd reacted to him … I don’t think it’s the best shot I ever saw him hit, but it was the most impressionable.”
The best shot Azinger saw came during an exhibition at the Old Course in St. Andrews for a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match.
“He was in a fairway bunker on No. 4,” Azinger said. “It was only a 9-iron, but he cooked it out of the bunker, straight up in the air and onto the green. I walked over to the bunker, and realized it was absolutely impossible for me to do that.”
Bobby Jones once famously said of Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
Ballesteros played shots that no one knew existed.
“He was special,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who lost all five times he faced Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup. “He truly saw shots that nobody else would see. He’d see a hole in a tree, a run-up on a links.”
What was the best shot he saw?
“Put it this way,” Strange said with a laugh. “He chipped in on me more than once. You almost applauded at times, because in a situation like that, you knew it was coming.”
Mark Garrod, the golf correspondent for PA Sports the last three decades, remembers Ballesteros hitting one shot so far right during the ’93 European Masters that he was 3 feet away from a wall with a swimming pool on the other side. The situation looked hopeless until Ballesteros saw enough of a gap in the trees that he hit pitching wedge to the fringe, then chipped in for birdie.
Garrod later asked Ballesteros about the shot, and the response is worth remembering now.
“I just like to keep going forward.”