Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Seve Ballesteros was last of his kind

Seve Ballesteros with the claret jug after winning the 1984 Open
Seve Ballesteros, Captain of The European Team reacts to a putt during the Pro-Am for the Seve Trophy 2007 held at The Heritage Golf and Country Club on September 26, 2007 in Killenard, Ireland.
Golf legend Seve Ballesteros waves as he appears in public for the first time after surgery on a cancerous brain tumor next to Racing de Santander's president Miguel Angel Revilla, right, before a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Racing de Santander and Almeria at the Sardinero stadium in Santander, Spain, on Sunday , May 3, 2009.

There will never be another golfer quite like Seve Ballesteros. Perhaps no other sportsman quite like him either.

Put together the charisma of Arnold Palmer and the shot-making skills of Tiger Woods and you come close. Yet at his peak, hard though it might be to believe, his appeal was greater than the sum of those two giants of the game.

In the 1980s Europe became blessed with a “Big Five” of Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam.

But if there was a tournament in Britain and Ballesteros was battling for the title with one or more of the other four he was the one the vast majority of the crowd wanted to come out on top.

Yes, he was that popular in a foreign land. Uniquely so.

It was one of the reasons he chose to announce his retirement in July last year at Carnoustie at The Open.

“The people from the United Kingdom, they really were fantastic every time,” he said in an emotional press conference that followed rumours of him trying to commit suicide following the death of a close friend. Rumours he vehemently denied.

“They were great. There was kind of a good feeling between them and I. There was a good connection.”

The 1984 Open at St Andrews was probably the high point, Ballesteros' own joy when his winning putt toppled into the hole on its dying roll matched by a roar that rocked the “auld grey toun” to its foundations.

It was his second Open and the fourth of his five majors, but there is no greater setting than the Home of Golf and to triumph there in such dramatic fashion — it denied Tom Watson what could have been a record-equalling sixth Claret Jug — made it the dream scenario.

By then every golf fan knew the beginning of the Seve story. The youngest of four brothers who at the age of seven was given the rusty head of an old three-iron and who searched for sticks that he made into shafts.

Pebbles from the beach near their Pedrena home on Spain's north coast became his balls and such was his love for and devotion to the game that his brother Manuel, who became a European Tour player himself, said: “Without a golf club in his hand he was like a man with no legs. You never saw him without a club.”

Seve started caddying at eight and at 14 all the Spanish professionals knew that there was “this kid” who was very special and destined for greatness.

Not that it looked that way when he first ventured onto the European Tour on his 17th birthday, shooting an 89 in the Portuguese Open qualifier and crying when asked about it afterwards.

He made it into the Spanish Open a week later, though, and while his first official Tour round was an 83 and he comfortably missed the cut by seven strokes it was only two events later that he came fifth at the Italian Open.

Ballesteros had top 10 finishes in his first three starts of 1975 and the following summer came the performance that made him a world star.

Still only 19, he jointly led The Open at Royal Birkdale after an opening 69, then led by two after the second and third rounds but American star Johnny Miller's closing 66 gave him the title by six.

Now everybody knew how good he was — and how good he was going to be. It was no surprise that he won the European Order of Merit the following three seasons, nor that he had only three years to wait for his first major.

That was at Royal Lytham — he was dubbed “the car park champion” for his excursion into a television compound at the 16th hole in the final round — and it was back at the Lancashire links that his fifth and final major came with an unforgettable closing 65 in 1988.

Between those two weeks he twice conquered all at The Masters as well.

No European had won at Augusta before, but he gave the other members of the 'Big Five' the belief that they could become green jacket holders too and eventually they all did.

As did Jose Maria Olazabal, the player with whom Ballesteros formed the most successful partnership in the Ryder Cup history — 11 wins, two halves and only two defeats.

It was only in the year he won his first Open, of course, that continental players started appearing in the match, but he was soon to become its most passionate exponent.

Ballesteros simply poured his heart and soul into it and was more responsible than anybody for turning the Ryder Cup into one of sport's most eagerly-awaited occasions.

Now the thoughts are for Ballesteros' family, most of all naturally his children Baldomero, Miguel and Carmen.

The break-up of his marriage followed on from the sharp decline in his golfing fortunes.

Ballesteros won the last of his record 50 European Tour titles in 1995. At 38 he was not old in golfing terms, but back problems had plagued him for years.

Ballesteros brought so much more than that to the sport and for him to die at such an early age robs the sport of a true superstar.

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