RIP Seve Ballesteros

Seve Ballesteros was told by a friend: “When the bad times arrive you have to open the umbrella and wait for the rain to stop.” Europe’s most charismatic golfer died waiting for the rain to cease, and now it is sport that stands there reminiscing, forlorn.

Notable sportsmen and women leave us every week, and stock phrases of sorrow are rolled out by people who never met them, but few will depart to so much anguish as Ballesteros, 54, who succumbed to a brain tumour after a three-year fight. His age is especially poignant, because Ballesteros is synonymous with precocity, with a fine bearing and youth. Perhaps a third of his life has been stolen from him in an age when the virtues he expressed are rare in the modern corporate world of sport.

Across Britain, as well as Spain, there was a mass appropriation of his memory as his admirers expressed unusually deep sadness at his passing.

Seve in Open glory

There is a reason for the grief. Success alone is no guarantee of adulation. Winners are respected but not necessarily adored. Ballesteros appealed to the masses because he didn’t just play golf: he attacked it, refusing to yield to the hard rules of nature that make it such an infernally difficult activity.

When he shot to prominence as the 22-year-old winner of the Open Championship, in 1979, golf was still embedded in the Jack Nicklaus/Arnold Palmer era. America was pre-eminent, and the game still radiated a country-club conservatism. Palmer and Nicklaus had brought big money in, but the sport still rationed its emotions, and it took Ballesteros’s energy and enthusiasm to loosen those binds.

The BBC’s Peter Alliss said yesterday that Seve had something of George Best about him – “a gift that very few of them are given”. Some of this was superficial: his dark hair, clean face and athletic shape made him an early poster boy for a stuffy industry.
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The “Seve” moniker was reminiscent of “Ali”; only the greats can be known by a single name. The eulogies for Ballesteros stretched so far that he is being talked about in that league. The common ingredient, as much as charisma, is skill, which he possessed in abundance: to be really mourned, the sportsman has to be capable of feats that would be impossible to his colleagues.

Seve seen recently

To convert pure talent into trophies requires audacity, boldness, and Ballesteros had that too. He was a gambler, a taker of risks who could find the green by improbable routes. A classic shot replayed by the obituarists came at Royal Lytham in 1979, on the 16th hole, where Ballesteros missed the fairway with his tee shot and landed in a temporary parking lot, but struck the green with a miraculous second shot, then holed a 15-foot birdie putt to hold off Nicklaus.

He became Spain’s first winner of a major and won the Open twice more in 1984 and 1988. His two Masters wins (1980 and 1983) established his reputation in America, where he is remembered with equal fondness. His warmth and exuberance challenged the stereotype of the golfer as a sober, cap-doffing figure. To him the game was entertainment and he energised the galleries.

He inspired a generation of European players to stand up to the richer US tour. In his footsteps walked a succession of talented Spaniards, such as Miguel Angel Jiménez, the ponytailed, cigar-puffing eccentric of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team in Wales last year. That victory owed much to Ballesteros, who was constantly evoked by Europe’s players, and who shared with Colin Montgomerie, the captain, the deepest appreciation of the Ryder Cup; in 1985 he was part of the first victorious European team for 28 years and was smitten.

Most great golfers are lone wolves, individualists. Theirs is a lonely sport that makes team play difficult for the most self-absorbed. Tiger Woods is the best example of a player to whom the Ryder Cup is alien. But Ballesteros was a team man. In Europe’s biennial clash with America he found another life, winning 20 points from 37 matches spread over eight Ryder Cups.

In 1997, he captained the team to victory at Valderrama in Spain, and was in his element, arriving on the greens like a tank commander to urge his players on. So his career unfolded in two hits: the brilliance of his early years in major tournaments, then the statesman phase, in which he expressed all the new confidence of the European game.

To many, Woods is a manufactured champion: a product of parental crafting and corporate ambition.
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Ballesteros pre-dates the business age. Satisfyingly, he learned to play hitting pebbles on the beach near his childhood home with a cut-down three iron. He was the boy in love with a game. His pomp, the late 1970s and 1980s, arrived just as golf was changing from a game to an industry.

Much of the woe expressed yesterday stemmed from people re-connecting with those more innocent times. A life at the top in sport offers no guarantees beyond retirement. Last week we also lost Sir Henry Cooper, who, a friend said, “could hardly get out of the house” in his final months, such was his grief over the death of his wife, Albina.

Equally, Ballesteros’s game fell apart in middle age. Back trouble was partly to blame. By the time he stopped, a round of golf at professional level had become painful, and sometimes embarrassing.

Tony Jacklin, his contemporary, said of his talent: “The impossible was an everyday thing for him.” It was true in golf, but not, last week, in life.

Seve Ballesteros came to prominence as a 19 year-old prodigy in the 1976 Open, finishing second to Johnny Miller after an astonishing recovery shot from a car park to birdie the 16th hole in his final round.

Seve Ballesteros and family

Three years later, in 1980, Ballesteros became the youngest winner of the Masters at the age of 23. He went on to win the Open twice more in 1984 and 1988.

Became the first European to win the US Augusta Masters in 1980, winning it for a second time in 83.

Topped golf’s world rankings for 61 weeks between 1986 and 1989, as well as equalling Gary Player’s record of five World Match Play Championships.

Due to persistent back problems Ballesteros’ game declined in the mid 1990’s, although he carried on playing intermittently until 2007 he won the last of his record 50 European Tour titles in 1995.

Having played in eight Ryder Cups during his career, winning three, Seve then captained Europe in a non-playing role to an epic Ryder Cup victory against the United States in 1997.