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Ryder Cup in Spain: Not quite as Spanish as a bullfight

September 15, 1997

SOTOGRANDE, Spain (AP) _ Seve Ballesteros once joked how surreal it would be to stage a bullfight in Finland. So what about holding the Ryder Cup in southern Spain?

For the first time in its 70-year history, the Ryder Cup will be played outside the United States or Britain when the competition begins Sept. 26 at Valderrama Golf Club within sight of the Mediterranean.

Spain’s lusty south is famed for Flamenco guitar, gypsies, Seville’s Giralda tower and the Moorish Alhambra palace in Granada. But golf?

``Now where did you get that idea that we don’t follow golf?″ asked Pedro Torregrosa, who runs the sports department of the El Corte Ingles department store in Puerto Banus, not far from Valderrama.

``The way we have been selling our Ryder Cup shirts and sweaters for the last year, you might think we were in Britain,″ he said.

Golf is not a popular sport in Spain, where it’s still seen as leisure for the rich. But it’s virtually the only game along the country’s expatriate, southern coast.

Here roughly 100,000 Britons and droves of other foreigners live year round on the Costa del Sol, a densely urban hodgepodge of tawdry and top-line hotels and apartments stretching 80 miles along the Mediterranean coast from Malaga to Gibraltar.

English routinely drowns out Spanish, and fish and chips are easier to find than a good paella _ Spain’s national rice dish.

The Costa del Sol _ Europe’s Florida _ lives off foreigners. Marbella, home to luminaries like Sean Connery, swells from 90,000 to 500,000 during the summer. In fall and spring _ the offseason for the beach but the high-season for golf _ Germans, Swedes and Britons come lugging their clubs.

Spain has about 200 courses, compared with almost 1,800 in England and 425 in Scotland. About 40 of them, and many of the best ones, line the Costa del Sol. The jewel is Valderrama, set just 10 miles north of Gibraltar in a rolling cork forest on an estate named Sotogrande.

Valderrama has been voted the best course in Europe for almost a decade. But several others nearby are also rated among the continent’s best, including Royal Sotogrande, Novo Sancti Petri and the San Roque Club, which is next door to Valderrama and will lodge the two Ryder teams.

``The foreign community is our bread and butter,″ said Torregrosa, arranging a stack of golf shirts ($65) and sweaters ($90) with the Ryder Cup logo. Overhead a Ryder Cup poster read _ but only in English, ``The Ryder Cup, Feel Part of it.″

``Seve Ballesteros is a legend down here and golf is as much a part of life here as it is for Americans or Britons,″ Torregrosa said.

Although the Ryder Cup is being run in Spain almost exclusively by British interests _ the subject of some discontent _ about 7,000 Spaniards have been guaranteed tickets among a daily crowd of 25,000. Tom Kite, captain of the U.S. team, said 5,000 to 8,000 Americans will make the trip.

``There is a lot of British influence in this, but the Spanish have been given a fair chance at tickets,″ said Jeff Kelly, a Briton who has lived 28 years in Spain and publishes the monthly magazine ``Andalusia Golf.″

It’s hard to find anyone on the coast who doesn’t know about the event _ the biggest in Spain since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Two hours north in Seville _ the capital of Andalusia, Spain’s southernmost region _ Ryder Cup questions get mostly shrugs.

``Soccer is the game here,″ said Vicente Pavon, a waiter at the Bar El Bocaito that sits just across the street from Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, home of the Seville soccer team.

``You don’t have to be well off to see a soccer game, really in the money, like you do in golf,″ he said. ``I don’t think Ballesteros has really caught on here because it’s still a game for the upper classes, the jet set.″

The talk in Seville is Brazilian midfielder Denilson, who recently agreed to transfer next summer to the town’s No. 2 club, Real Betis, for a world-record $35 million.

Down the street in another branch of the El Corte Ingles department store, the golf section amounts to just a few sets of clubs. One clerk, who was briefly minding the counter, admitted he knew little about the game.

``Heard of it, but I don’t know much else,″ he said when asked about the Ryder Cup.

End Adv for weekend editions, Sept. 20-21

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