Ballesteros: the last of his kind

seve ballesteros, craig stadler
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By the time he won the 1983 Masters -- Seve Ballesteros had become continental Europe's first true golf superstar.
By
Mark Garrod
PA Sport

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Published: Saturday, May 07, 2011 | 3:27 a.m.

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 shotmaking 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 British Open.

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

"They were great. There was kind of a good feeling between them and I. There was a good connection. There was a good chemistry. They really support me all the way and this is one thing that I will never forget,” he added. "I say that many times and I wanted to say it one more time. Most of the tournaments that I won were thanks to them, because they really support me very much and I feel it and I'm very grateful for that. So thank you very much."

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 toon" 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 3-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 afterward.

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 in 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 shared the lead at the Open at Royal Birkdale after an opening 69, then led by two after the second and third rounds. Johnny Miller's closing 66 gave him the title by six, but Ballesteros' chip-and-run between the bunkers at the last enabled him to tie Jack Nicklaus for second place.

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 National before, but he gave the other members of the “Big Five” the belief that they could become Green Jacket winners, 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.

At times it almost got too heated -- Paul Azinger famous called him "the king of gamesmanship" and Ballesteros replied that the 1991 American team was "11 nice guys and Paul Azinger" -- but the pair put all that aside when Azinger battled cancer.

Now the thoughts are for Ballesteros' family, most of all 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 and, as talented as he was and as magical on and around the greens as he remained, he found it harder and harder to be competitive.

Victorious as Ryder Cup captain when the match was played in Spain for the first time in 1997 -- so keen was he that he created land speed records for a golf cart -- it was to be in the competition created in his honor that the last hurrahs came.

Ballesteros twice beat Colin Montgomerie in the Seve Trophy, the second of them at Druids Glen almost defying belief given some of the places he visited.

That week also saw him back in partnership with Olazabal, who went down on his knees in an act of obeisance after the great man holed a bunker shot to give them victory over Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley.

There are countless such strokes to be remembered. Caddie Pete Coleman recalls the time when Ballesteros, deep in the trees, had to play out sideways, but miraculous conjured up a shot that travelled the required distance to the middle of the fairway, then curved left and made it to the green.

No plaque was put down for that one, but there was for his amazing escape from behind a swimming pool wall in Switzerland in 1993.

The wall was eight feet high and it was less than a yard in front of him. Not only that, there were also trees all around, but Ballesteros spied a tiny gap and, to the astonishment of caddie Billy Foster, opened the face of a pitching wedge, sent the ball through the gap and then chipped in for birdie.

In his declining years as a player, Ballesteros' frustrations boiled over into confrontationswith officials that culminated in 2003, when he was fined and reprimanded by the European Tour after calling its leaders the "PGA Mafia," having refused to accept a slow play penalty.

A flawed genius then, but undoubtedly a genius.

"Seve can have an off week and still win. But if Seve plays well and the rest of us play well, Seve wins." So said Ben Crenshaw.

Ballesteros disputed that. He reckoned that if Europe's "Big Five" all played at the peak of their powers then Lyle would come out on top -- "by five, with me second".

That was just talking talent, though. 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.

At first, people struggled to say his name. But Seve -- that became enough to identify him  -- will be remembered by everyone who saw him play.


Comments

beatlespeak

I had the honor of meeting "El Matador" @ the 1985 Westchester Classic (Rye N.Y.) which he won in a four way sudden death playoff against: Greg Norman; Ken Green; & David Frost. He was to me the most colourfull, charasmatic and exciting golfer ever. Back then this tournament had a tremendously strong field with all international players coming for the U.S. Open, which at the time was the next event! He was my golfing hero and always will be.