'Benevolent dictator' Patino left no detail overlooked

Jaime Ortiz-Patino (center), owner of the Valderrama Golf Course, holds the Ryder Cup trophy with Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood of Team Europe as the teams arrive to contest the 32nd Ryder Cup in 1997.

Jaime Ortiz-Patino liked to think of himself as a “benevolent dictator.” His words, not mine.

Patino, who died Jan. 3 at the age of 82 (read the obit here), was owner of Valderrama Golf Club in southern Spain. With a fortune made from tin mining in his native Bolivia, he had the money to spend on the course that became his true love.

No detail was overlooked in his quest to build the best course in Continental Europe. For 16 years, Patino’s layout hosted the European Tour’s season-ending Volvo Masters. It was the venue for the 1999 and 2000 WGC–American Express Championship. More recently, Valderrama was home to the Andalucia Masters.

However, his greatest triumph came in 1997 when Valderrama hosted the first Ryder Cup in Continental Europe.

Make no mistake about it: Patino used his vast fortune to buy the Ryder Cup, just as Michael Smurfit did in 2006 and Terry Matthews in 2010. However, unlike Smurfit and Matthews, Patino knew what was needed to maintain a golf course to tournament and Ryder Cup standard.

Patino was awarded the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America's Old Tom Morris Award in 1999. It was no honorary bauble, either.

Stories abound about how the lord and master of Valderrama would rise at 4:30 a.m. during the Ryder Cup to oversee course setup. He not only did that in the Ryder Cup, but for any tournament at Valderrama. I know, because I witnessed him in action first-hand.

In the early 1990s, I managed to get Patino to agree to let me accompany him during his early morning preparations for the Volvo Masters. This meant meeting him at 4:30 a.m. in the Valderrama maintenance yard. I witnessed him swishing dew off the par-3, 12th green like one of his laborers. I watched him meticulously direct the greenkeeper mowing the 13th green, making sure he did not stray off line with his cuts.

At the 10th green, I stood in horror as Patino took out a penknife to dig out a small triangle of sod to show me the root structure. Then he carefully reinserted the sod back into the green with all the love of a parent putting a child back to sleep.

It was obvious he had a love of the land and nature that was almost palpable. One of the criticisms of Valderrama is that the trees encroach too much onto the fairways, so that good tee shots often result in approach shots that have to be manufactured around encroaching branches and foliage.

“I hate cutting down trees,” Patino said. “I am advised to cut this tree or that tree, but most of the time I just can’t bear to cut them down.”

It was also obvious that morning that he was in his own personal kingdom. “I have one golden rule here at Valderrama,” Patino said. “I have all the gold, so I make the rules. Think of me as a benevolent dictator.”

Englishman Michael Lovett worked as general manager of Valderrama for two spells, from 1989 to '92 and from 1994 to '95. He agrees with the "benevolent dictator" line. “Jimmy was the boss, no doubt about it,” Lovett said. “He once famously said: ‘I believe in odd-numbered boards, and three is too many.’

“He was a perfectionist. His attention to detail was amazing in everything he did. He always believed in having the best people around him, but he led from the front. His way was the only way.

“He was a visionary who changed and set the standard for the way tournaments should be run. For that, golf owes him a great deal.”

Aside from an immaculate golf course, Patino had one of the best collections of golf artifacts ever assembled. You couldn’t help but admire it, because it was on prominent display in the halls of the Valderrama clubhouse. The collection was auctioned last year at Christie’s in London.

Patino sold Valderrama to a group of private individuals last year. Sons Felipe and Carlos and four grandchildren survive him.

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