News & Opinion

Spain builds golf legacy worthy of Seve

Jon Rahm adds to nation's outsized presence on world stage

Pound for pound, Spain has long reigned as pro golf’s welterweight champion, producing more top-tier players and accounting for more history over the past 50 years than any nation beyond the United States. Scotland rightfully can claim the game’s ownership, and England and Australia have put more guys on the map, but when it comes to shaping the landscape, the Spaniards continue to define high-end performance and serve as the king of continental Europe.

Seve Ballesteros 2007
The late Seve Ballesteros stands out among a strong cast of Spanish golfers.

Of course, 95 percent of the credit for Spain’s rise to prominence belongs to the late Seve Ballesteros. Is he one of the five most influential men ever to play the game? The purists and Old Gloryists would snicker, but all these years later, Ballesteros remains the European Tour’s all-time leader in victories (50), although measuring his impact by total wins is a bit like appraising the Beatles on their musicianship.

For whatever reason, the Euro Tour’s official career money list doesn’t include earnings before 1985. Pardoning this exceptionally strange provision in dollar-counting, Ballesteros would rank 121st overall, right behind the one and only Lee Slattery, largely because Seve’s presence generated purse revenue to the same effect as Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour, where guys with three victories in 554 starts are approaching $40 million in earnings.

Anyway, Ballesteros is the godfather of the Ryder Cup, the dashing, driven and devilish catalyst who grabbed the biennial series by the neck and shook it into a complete transformation. It was nothing more than a three-day American picnic before the 1980s, but the inclusion of continental Europe to the old GB&I side meant the addition of a wicked young Spaniard and a pronounced competitive overhaul.

Ballesteros might not make golf’s Mount Rushmore, but if anyone has a chisel and wants to add a fifth face, he is on the short list.

John Rahm at Mutuactivos Open de Espana
Jon Rahm, who at age 24 already owns 5 victories in Europe and 3 in the U.S., emerges as Spain’s brightest star.

His countrymen have done a fine job in his wake. Spaniards finished 1-2-3 at last week’s Spanish Open, which was won by Jon Rahm. Yes, it was a home game, a microscopic sample size if one ever existed. It wasn’t the greatest field ever assembled—Slattery finished T-37, by the way – but it lends a few ounces of supporting evidence that Spain is a significant and somewhat overlooked entity in the game’s America-centric universe.

Rahm, at No. 4, is the only Spaniard among the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking. England placed five among the top 30, but there was a lengthy stretch (call it the post-Nick Faldo era) when Lee Westwood was basically all that the nation had in terms of representation on the world stage, and Westwood is still searching for his first major title.

Jose Maria Olazabal won a pair of Masters and partnered with Ballesteros on numerous occasions to fuel Europe’s Ryder Cup fire. From there, we turn to Sergio Garcia. One of the most recognizable golfers on the planet for two decades now, the gifted heir apparent to Seve whose errors have been all too apparent in molding a career that has included a lot of good, a lot of bad and a certain amount of childish.

All that said, Garcia has won a Masters and a Players Championship, plus eight more times in the U.S. and 15 other times in Europe, where he rarely has maintained a full schedule. He accumulated 22 top-10 finishes at the majors before sliding his arms into a green jacket in 2017. Like Westwood, Garcia had suffered from an inability to seal the deal at the game’s biggest gatherings, which played a huge role in scrawling his legacy.

The difference is that Garcia finally won a major. Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie never did, and Westwood hasn’t. For all the excellent tour pros who never claimed a big title, Garcia did. You can’t call him a failure, or even an underachiever, with a straight face. A brat? Yes. A disappointment? No way.

Garcia also has been a Ryder Cup monster: 22-12-7 as a member of nine European squads, six of which were winners. When you look back on the history of the matches since Ballesteros showed up wearing a sheriff’s badge, you’re reminded how terrific the Spaniards have been against Uncle Sam. The country’s overall Ryder Cup record of 81-57-26 (58.3 winning percentage) is the best of any European nation.

Spain has won almost three times as many matches as Northern Ireland. In 2018, Club Severiano pulled even with Scotland on the total victory count, which is staggering, given that the Scots have been part of the festivities since the inaugural 1927 matches and the Spaniards didn’t get invited until 1979. The Ballesteros-Olazabal duo went 11-2-2 overall, a freakish level of success, but there have been plenty of other key contributors on the Good Ship El Espana.

At 24, Rahm quickly has emerged as one of the game’s top players, but like the Spanish superstar-to-be who preceded him, there is some distance between himself and greatness. He has progressed so rapidly that it’s difficult not to envision Rahm as Spain’s fourth Masters champion. His length off the tee is prodigious, and his touch around the greens extraordinary. As soon as he figures out how to make those 12-footers late on a Sunday afternoon, Rahm will become a multi-major winner and perhaps the second-best Spanish golfer ever.

He’ll never catch the first. Ain’t enough room on Mount Rushmore for a sixth face.