Seve Ballesteros: The passion, the pain, the anger and the glory
Seve Ballesteros and George Best shared a wonderful gift they turned sport into raw emotion.
With one stroke of genius, they could make excited children of us all.
Yet Best was born and reared into a sport of the masses. Seve was a pioneer, doing more than any other European in history to turn golf into a game of the people.
On the course, his shot-making could be as surreal and wildly inventive as Salvador Dali though Seve also succeeded in melting the stuffy social mores of golf with his personality.
Like Best, he was blessed with charm and extraordinary charisma. As that tired cliche goes, women wanted him and men wanted to be like him.
Ballesteros and Best enjoyed one other truly remarkable quality. Unaffected by the fame and the fortunes they made, both remained ordinary, personable men.
So you’ll forgive me if I look past Seve’s feats in winning five Majors and 87 other tournaments, including three Irish Opens, to a Sunday afternoon Seve spent in a pub in Killenard in County Laois seven or eight years ago.
Ballesteros had just flown in for a site inspection at The Heritage, where the course he was building for his friend Tommy Keane was nearing completion.
Once he’d finished walking the course, Ballesteros invited the work crew to join him for a drink.
They all adjourned to the local pub, where Seve held about 10 plain country lads spellbound with his charm as he told them hilarious tales of his life in golf and engaged them in some easy repartee.
Seve seemed to have all the time in the world as he sipped a pint or three of Guinness and enjoyed the company of a few chaps he’d plainly considered to be like himself.
It gave us the chance to see the other side of the most passionate, exciting and gloriously gifted golfer of our time. For a few short hours, we were privileged to know the ‘real’ Seve Ballesteros, the man being mourned by family and so many friends in golf following his death at age 54 on Saturday morning.
Seve Ballesteros was born and raised on a small farm outside Pedrena, a picture postcard village situated across the bay from Santander on Spain’s northern coast.
Until age 10, he shared a bed in a windowless room they called ‘The Dungeon’ with his brother Vicente, while the older boys, Baldomero Junior and Manuel, each had a room of their own.
As the youngest, Seve was spoiled by parents, Baldomero and Carmen, but “to compensate, my older brothers gave me all the rotten jobs. Before going to school in the morning, for example, my first job was to clean out the cow dung from the stable.” he’d reveal.
Entering the sixties, Pedrena had one public phone, one cinema, one taxi and during Seve’s early childhood, one black and white TV. It was situated in a local bar and the youngster used to sneak out at night and watch The Saint or The Fugitive through the window, unable to hear a word.
The only private car in Pedrena was owned by Seve’s uncle, Ramon Sota, golf professional at Real Club de Pedrena, who finished sixth at the 1965 US Masters.
Yet young farm boys like Seve could tread Real Pedrena’s plush fairways only as caddies. He was even suspended from that role once for taking a practice swing on the course. So Ballesteros honed his skills on the local beach, sneaking onto the course by moonlight or before the cock crowed.
Even as a kid, he was defiant. Seve was expelled from school at 12 for setting about the mistress. She’d slapped him for tearing a couple of pages out of his school book, though one of his classmates had done it.
Ballesteros was in high-dudgeon as he trotted the two miles home that lunchtime. Finding a bottle of wine on the kitchen table in the empty farmhouse, he knocked back a couple of glasses and headed back to school drunk and determined to set things straight.
So sobering was this experience and its repercussions, Seve didn’t drink again until well into adulthood. He didn’t go to school much either, preferring to hit golf balls instead.
The plain people of Pedrena supported Seve well, even renaming the main street after him, but Ballesteros made clear his dislike for the denizens of his local golf club in his autobiography.
He wrote: “The basic point of confrontation is that for me, the people who run the club behave like a bunch of second-raters Some resented the fact that I had gone on to win titles, trophies and renown. When I married the daughter of the most powerful banker in Spain it was too much.”
In 1983, Ballesteros met and courted Carmen Botin, whose family owned the Bank of Santander. They were wed in 1988 and she bore him three children before their marriage ended 17 years later because of Seve’s increasingly erratic behaviour and his alleged affairs. In recent years, the legend lived alone in his rambling mansion in Pedrena.
“I feel a little bit sad because I don’t have anybody,” he confessed in a BBC TV interview with Peter Alliss in 2009. “I am by myself. The thing that worries me is the winter when it’s dark and the weather is bad.”
Three of Seve’s five Majors were won on the wonderful links courses which host The Open (Lytham in ’79 and ’88 and most exciting of all, at St Andrews in ’84) and at Augusta National, where, at age 23, he became the first European to win the Masters in 1980, donning the Green Jacket again in 1983.
These great courses were the perfect canvas for Seve, who was just 19 when he gave the world at large its first real glimpse of his artistry during the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale.
The dashing teenager tied second with Jack Nicklaus behind Johnny Miller that year, playing shots beyond the imagination of his peers, like his astonishing chip into the final green on Sunday.
Seve’s ball had come to rest on trampled grass with bunkers between Seve and the hole. The obvious option was a sand iron over the two bunkers, but, as ever, Ballesteros saw it differently.
Fifteen yards away, a hard path rode the crest of two bunkers and ran up to the green. He took a 9-iron, and played the most delicate of shots along the path. His ball skipped up the mound, rolled over the other side and trickled to a halt four feet from the hole. Birdie!
Sitting at home in Texas, where he was recovering from a back injury, Lee Trevino recalls laughing out loud at the sheer audacity of the shot.
Seve’s march to victory at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s in 1979 famously led him through a public car park alongside the 16th fairway.
Typically, he’d hit just eight fairways during the first three days at Lytham and only one on Sunday. “I can’t understand how anyone can drive as badly and still win the Open,” said Hale Irwin, much to Seve’s annoyance.
American inferences that he’d been lucky at Lytham infuriated Ballesteros, making his breakthrough win at the US Masters the following April all the more satisfying and fuelling his antipathy for the opposition at the Ryder Cup.
Ballesteros always insisted he’d deliberately hit his ball into that car park, 24 yards to the right of the 16th fairway and 90 yards short of the green.
“I drove to the right because the wind was helping from the left, making the shot into the green from the right much easier,” he explained.
“I knew the rough out there was not bad because the spectators had trampled it down. I also realised if my ball finished among the cars, I’d get a free drop.”
Seve hit a perfect sand wedge to the green, sank the 30 foot putt and led the Open by three shots with two holes to play. It was all over bar the shooting of his two closing pars!
Jack Nicklaus says Seve played the best shot he’s ever seen at the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National.
All-square in singles with Fuzzy Zoeller, Ballesteros hit a wild hook off the tee at 18 into such deep rough that he could only advance his ball 20 yards into a fairway bunker.
With 250 yards to the green and the ball resting on an upslope, a six or seven iron seemed the only choice. Yet Seve drew his 3-wood and so stunning was the shot he smashed to the front fringe that it drew as much laughter as applause.
Ballesteros halved with Zoeller and even though Europe lost that Ryder Cup, they no longer went like lambs to the slaughter.
Seve’s temper always burned on a short fuse, while he railed against any perceived injustice, a quality he says he inherited from his beloved father.
“If being a rebel means not accepting authoritarian decisions, then I’m certainly one,” he’d explain.
He waltzed with controversy. Like the time Seve refused to go to the World Cup in 1977 and defend the title he and Manuel Pinero had won the previous year, arguing that the £1,000 on offer was too paltry a sum to pay a professional of his stature.
His Spanish colleagues were not amused, while the PGA of America weren’t pleased either when Seve turned down an invite to the 1978 US PGA, the first they’d offered to a non-American and accepted instead an appearance fee to play in the German Open.
He amassed 20 points from 37 matches at the Ryder Cup and the 11 victories and two halves he and Jose Maria Olazabal culled from the 15 times they played together established them as the greatest partnership in the event’s history.
If his contribution to that famous first victory on American soil at Muirfield Village in 1987 was memorable, Seve’s fellow professionals speak in awe of the talismanic role he played on another Ryder Cup Sunday eight years later at Oak Hill.
Ballesteros had won the last of his record 50 European Tour titles, the Spanish Open, earlier that year.
He’d lost the driver, his confidence was shot, but he staunchly refused to run and hide.
Instead, he led Europe into action in the singles, inspiring his comrades by somehow holding reigning Open champion Tom Lehman all square through nine holes. Seve would lose 4 and 2, but the fire had been set.
He last graced the Ryder Cup stage in 1997 as a mercurial winning captain of the home side at Valderrama.
Seve's game really started to crumble in the late nineties as his battle with a chronic back complaint intensified and his increasingly wayward driving put even his short game under intolerable pressure.
Many believe this decline began as far back as The Masters in 1986. He’d win The Open at Lytham two years later and many other titles to boot.
Yet something cracked in Seve’s psyche that Sunday at Augusta.
Leading by two as he played 15, Ballesteros hit his 4-iron approach fat and into the pond in front of the green, effectively gifting the Green Jacket to Jack Nicklaus.
As time and infirmity tied Seve’s hands, denying him the opportunity to express himself on the golf course, he became embroiled in a series of ugly confrontations with the sport’s officialdom.
Undignified clashes with rules officials occurred both on and off the golf course as his behaviour became increasingly erratic.
These were dark days in which Seve’s declining health must have been a factor.
After undergoing brain surgery in 2008, for example, Ballesteros was informed by his surgeons that a large tumour (“the size of two golf balls”) had been growing inside his head for five to six years.
Unable anymore to find enjoyment or, in his own words, maintain his dignity on the course, Ballesteros retired from golf in July 2007.
Then, as now, we consoled ourselves that Seve will live forever in the memory.
His swashbuckling spirit and vivid imagination will offer eternal inspiration to those privileged to see him play.