May 7, 2011 2 Comments
The sport of golf has lost an artist and a true gentlemen. It was with great sadness that I awoke to read the news of Severiano Ballesteros‘s passing in the early hours of this morning at the age of 54. The Spanish great had been suffering from failing health since being diagnosed with a brain tumour in October 2008.
The greatest sporting icons frequently set themselves apart by only ever needing to be referred to by their first name: everyone knows who Tiger is, and with apologies to Mr Johnson the athlete ‘Michael’ will forever be associated with the Chicago Bulls‘ Jordan. ‘Seve’ very much falls into this category.
Sporting events form a large part of the jigsaw of my childhood memories, and my clearest recollections start from when I was eight or nine, from mid-1978 to mid-1980: the electric finish to the 1979 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United, Allan Wells winning Olympic gold in the 100 metres, the last days of the thrilling Welsh rugby union team of the 70s. Seve’s triumph at the 1979 Open championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes ranks right up there.
I remember watching captivated as a youthful Ballesteros overcame a two-shot deficit to the American Hale Irwin going into the final day with a round of erratic but brilliant genius. With the title still in the balance, he famously hacked his tee shot at the 16th into a car park. Not only did he recover, he made birdie and eventually triumphed by three shots. At 22, he was the youngest winner of the tournament in the 20th century and also the first man from continental Europe to win one of golf’s four Majors in 72 years.
That 16th hole at Lytham summed up everything that was magical about Seve. So often he drove the ball as waywardly as any occasional weekend golfer, but his ability to recover seemingly hopeless situations from sand or rough was unprecedented. Whether it was an unerring middle-iron hack out of long grass or a delicate, soft-handed chip from a green-side bunker, Ballesteros thrived on his ability to conjure up the seemingly impossible with his short game.
And more than his ability was the child-like enthusiasm he brought to the game. In an era of media-trained professionals and corporate correctness, there is something inherently uplifting about watching old clips of him rolling a sublime chip to within six inches of the flag and seeing his smile and that familiar, unrestrained fist-pumping jig of delight. Yes, there were times when his Latin temperament brought a terrible case of the sulks down upon him when things were going badly, but Ballesteros always connected with the fans in such a way that it only endeared them to him even more. Tiger Woods is seen as petulant, Seve was just ‘one of us’.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between these two great golfers: Woods is admired, but Seve was loved.
It’s easy to underestimate the impact Ballesteros’s win at The Open had on the wider game. His success paved the way for the wave of top continental European golfers who have since followed. And it is not stretching the truth too much to say that in some small way his warm personality and accessible, down-to-earth charm helped open up the game to a wider audience who had previously viewed the sport as aloof and elitist. And he did it all with a certain grace, from the artistic invention of his stroke-play to the simple and understated elegance of his attire. (No garish plus-fours for Seve.)
In total , Ballesteros won five Majors during his career. In 1980 he became the first European to win the Masters, and also its youngest ever champion at 23 (a record since broken by Woods). A second triumph followed in 1983, followed by two further Open championships in 1984 and 1988. As a player and captain, he helped the European Ryder Cup team to five wins. After the current world golf rankings system was introduced in 1986, he was world number one for 61 weeks. (Only three men – Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo – have held the position for longer.) Both statistically and emotionally, there is no denying his place among the legends of the sport.
Despite recurring back problems and increasingly poor form, Ballesteros did not retire from the game until 2007, a year before his tumour was diagnosed, finishing with a total of 91 professional wins. He also helped introduce the Seve Trophy in 2000, a bi-annual team competition similar to the Ryder Cup in which a Great Britain and Ireland team take on their counterparts from continental Europe.
Seve Ballesteros is survived by his ex-wife of 16 years, Carmen Botín, and their three children Baldomero, Miguel, and Carmen.
Those whom the gods love die young, indeed. May you rest in peace, Seve. Whichever bunker your ball lands in on Heaven’s golf course, may it be a favourable lie from which you can magically escape up-and-down in two.