Ryder Cup week off to friendly start

MEDINAH, Ill. -- At the 1999 Masters, Jose Maria Olazabal beat Davis Love III by 2 shots to win his second green jacket. This was the second time in five years Love had finished runner-up in the tournament that meant more than anything to him as a Georgia native. After the Champions dinner the following year, Olazabal gave Love several bottles of his leftover Spanish wine.

"That showed a lot that [Jose] would do that, because he knew that was a tough defeat for me," Love said on Monday. "We've always had a lot of mutual respect."

As players from both teams trickle in on Monday from places such as Florida, Europe and Atlanta to prepare for the 39th Ryder Cup matches at Medinah Country Club, the two captains linked forever by their own duels in past Ryder Cups talked more about friendship than the adversarial tone the matches might take when they start on Friday.

"The [Europeans] are our friends," Love said. "They are our guys we travel with week in and week out on the tour. That doesn't make it any less competitive. It just makes it that we know each other a lot better."

Both these captains know an uglier time, after the Europeans, under the dynamic leadership of Seve Ballesteros, beat the U.S. in the 1987 matches at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Prior to that Ryder Cup, a European team had never won on U.S. soil.

Monday was a day of reminiscing for these two players in the twilight of their careers on the regular tour.

Olazabal, 46, made his Ryder Cup debut at 21 in those Muirfield Village matches. Back then, the whole European team flew over together for the matches. All 12 players were members of the European Tour.

On Monday, Olazabal arrived with just three of his players from Europe. Five members of the team were in the field at the PGA Tour's Tour Championship, and the rest have residences scattered around the U.S.

"Well, it's obviously completely different to, let's say, 15 years ago," Olazabal said. "Obviously, when you look at some of the European players, [they] have their home base here. They play the tour over here.

"They are very familiar with the golf courses around here, with their opponents, and in that regard, I think they feel really more comfortable with the whole situation of coming here to the States to play the Ryder Cup."

Love, 48, remembers when captain Tom Watson in 1993 gathered the U.S. team in New York to take the Concorde over for the Belfry matches, which the Americans won, 15-13. He remembers the speech Watson gave before they took off.

"'It's going to be a grand adventure. It's going to be incredible,'" Love said.

Love said he missed some of that spirit of "us against them," but he likes what the matches have evolved into over the years.

"What we have now is a much bigger event, and we have got 24 of the top 35 guys in the world [ranking]; I think that golf has got incredibly better," he said. "But what we have in our team rooms now and the camaraderie between the two teams is just incredible, and it's amazing how much it's changed over the years.

"And we're playing against our friends, but it's still as intense -- maybe even more -- because we are more familiar with them."

In Love's first Ryder Cup appearance, in '93, he wasn't very familiar with gamesmanship tactics of Ballesteros and the combative tone the matches had begun to take in recent years. He partnered with Tom Kite to lose his first three matches, against the "Spanish Armada" of Olazabal and Ballesteros.

On Monday, Love recalled how he and Olazabal seemed to be along for the ride, while the two veterans, Kite and Ballesteros, seemed to be in an all-out war.

But these are different times. And Love and Olazabal will set their own tone at Medinah. From on high, the late Ballesteros will impact almost every decision Olazabal makes this week.

Love has experiences from his six Ryder Cups as a player and from the captains of those teams. He's getting more information than he could ever apply for from Paul Azinger, who led the U.S. team to a win at Valhalla in '08.

"When the iPhone says 'Paul Azinger,' I have to make a decision: Do I have 30, 45 minutes, or do I hit the ignore button," Love said with a grin. "And sometimes I hit ignore and sometimes I answered it.

"It's really incredible how much thought and passion he put into it, and I could tell you 10 or 12 things we're going to do."

On Sunday, Love played Medinah with his son, Dru, a freshman on the University of Alabama golf team. Love has set up the Rees Jones renovation with little to no rough.

"We want to let these unbelievable athletes freewheel it a little bit and play," Love said. "Medinah is such a big, long golf course, and with the weather turning bad on us, I don't think we wanted a lot of rough.

"I think fair and fun and exciting for the fans on TV is the way to go."

So there you have it: fair and fun with good friends playing against each other in a pressure cooker for three days. By Sunday, though, that familiarity will most likely breed some contempt.