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A passion unmatched

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Seve Ballesteros could drive him crazy.

Paul Azinger once called the fiery Spaniard “The King of Gamesmanship” in their emotionally charged Ryder Cup rivalry.

But Azinger could drive Ballesteros just as crazy.

“The American team has 11 nice guys . . . and Paul Azinger,” Ballesteros once said.

They battled each other as fiercely as any Ryder Cup foes ever have.

They sparred as shot makers. They sparred psychologically. They sparred verbally.

The confrontations between Ballesteros and Azinger at Kiawah Island in 1991 made them central figures in the “War on the Shore,” the United States’ victory that elevated the Ryder Cup’s intensity. Actually, the bad blood between Ballesteros and Azinger spilled over from The Belfry two years earlier, when Azinger defeated Ballesteros in a singles match so passionately contested that Ballesteros left the match teary-eyed.

All these years later, with Saturday’s news of Ballesteros’ death, Azinger remembers his old rival with more than admiration and respect.

Azinger remembers Ballesteros’ heart, the intensity of caring that fueled the man’s competitive fire but also his generous spirit.

“Seve’s one of the first persons who called when I got sick,” Azinger told GolfChannel.com. “We had our moments that I think we regret playing out on a public stage, but we had totally resolved all that in a conversation.”

A couple months after the “War on the Shore,” Ballesteros and Azinger talked out their issues on a practice putting green in an event in Jamaica.

Azinger remembers the conversation vividly. He remembers Ballesteros telling him how the “King of Gamesmanship” comment hurt him. He remembers Ballesteros confiding that he said things just to hurt Azinger in return. He even remembers Ballesteros’ exact words in deciding they should forgive each other.

“Seve, in his classic way, says, `We’ll treat this like old toilet water. We’ll flush this,’” Azinger said.

Two years after the “War on the Shore,” Azinger was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer, in his right shoulder. Ballesteros reached out to make sure Azinger knew he cared.

“I was too sick to talk to anyone when Seve called, but when you’re sick, that’s all you need to hear, that someone called,” Azinger said. “It isn’t the words of encouragement you really remember. It’s the act, the idea he called. That meant everything.”

Ballesteros and Azinger played a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match at the Old Course at St. Andrews in 1995. They’ve played practice rounds together.

“People feel an emotion about Seve unlike any other player that’s ever played golf,” Azinger said.

Azinger probably summed up the nature of his relationship with Ballesteros best in his autobiography, Zinger: A Champion’s Story of Determination, Courage and Charging Back.

“I just can’t help loving the guy, except for one week every other year,” Azinger wrote.

Ballesteros is remembered as the heart and soul of so many European Ryder Cup teams. He led the ’85, ’87 and ’89 teams that won or retained the cup while turning around Europe’s foundering history in the event. He was 10-3-2 in those pivotal years. Overall, in eight Ryder Cups, Ballesteros was 20-12-5. He was also the victorious captain for the ’97 Euro squad.

Azinger met Ballesteros just three times in Ryder Cup play, but the intensity of their matches helped changed the nature of the competition.

Azinger defeated Ballesteros in a singles match and lost twice to him in partnered matches.

The complicated nature of Ballesteros’ heart led to a complicated relationship with his Ryder Cup rival.

“Seve probably had the greatest flair for the game of anybody I’ve ever played with,” Azinger said. “He had the `it’ factor, the charisma. He was very passionate and giving of his knowledge, and he was also extremely patriotic.

“I played practice rounds with Seve, and we got along great, but when we played together at the Ryder Cup, there was a whole other side to Seve. That patriotic mechanism kicked in and changed the way he played. I think his passion became even greater than what it was winning major championships.”

Azinger first played with Ballesteros at the 1987 PGA Championship at PGA National, a month after Azinger lost a chance to win the British Open.

Ballesteros, who would win five major championships, could sense the lingering disappointment hindering Azinger’s game.

“You no worry about this,” Ballesteros told Azinger at the end of their round. “You are a very good player. You have many more chances.”

A year later, at the U.S. Open, Azinger and Ballesteros were both in contention when paired in the final round at The Country Club at Brookline. Again, Ballesteros, who played himself out of contention, began rooting for Azinger, encouraging him to finish strong and win even as Azinger came up short.

When Azinger made his first Ryder Cup team at The Belfry in ‘89, he got a completely different view of Ballesteros. He pulled Ballesteros as his Sunday singles opponent. Azinger was a Ryder Cup rookie, Ballesteros the heart and soul of the European team.

It took just two holes before they were engaged in their first confrontation.

Ballesteros told Azinger that his balata ball was cut, and he was taking it out of play. Azinger wanted to see the ball, to make sure, as the rules dictated, that it was visibly cut. Azinger deemed there were groove marks on the ball, but it wasn’t cut or damaged enough to remove from play. In fact, Azinger thought his own ball was in worse shape.

After a referee intervened, upholding Azinger’s opinion, this rivalry was fully engaged with Ballesteros upset.

At the 18th hole, Ballesteros disputed a drop after Azinger hit a shot in the water, though an official once again guided Azinger’s drop. Despite a clutch holed putt at the last by Ballesteros, Azinger won the match 1 up with a terrific recovery, making Azinger an American bright spot with Europe retaining the cup.

Two years later, at Kiawah Island, fate brought Ballesteros and Azinger back together again.

In the opening morning match, Azinger and Chip Beck were teamed in alternate shot against Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the Spanish Armada. It took two holes before Azinger and Ballesteros were squaring off over another controversial drop. At the fourth, there was an issue over a lost ball. At the ninth, another confrontation over a drop, and at the 10th hole a dispute over Azinger and Beck changing the compression of the ball they were playing.

Though 3 down at the turn, Ballesteros and Olazabal won the match 2 and 1.

As fate would have it once more, the teams were matched again in afternoon best ball. Ballesteros and Olazabal prevailed yet again, with gamesmanship accusations escalating. Azinger and Beck were annoyed at what they termed Ballesteros’ “sporadic throat-clearing.” Azinger said they were among “distractions” Ballesteros created.

Looking back, Azinger relishes the fierceness of the competition with Ballesteros.

“Seve was the most passionate player I’ve ever faced,” Azinger said. “He was tough. There was gamesmanship. We just butted heads.

“I was obviously very passionate and patriotic as well. I took the Ryder Cup personal, and I think Seve took the Ryder Cup personal.”

Azinger believes the passions exhibited in his Ryder Cup rivalry with Ballesteros were good for the international team event.

“Seve was great, and he was great for the game,” Azinger said.