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Saturday, 07 May 2011
The swashbuckling Seve at his best  (Getty Images)
The swashbuckling Seve at his best (Getty Images)

An appreciation by Mitchell Platts

Seve, the farmer’s son who enraptured the world of golf from the moment he refused to surrender at Royal Birkdale in 1976, has lost the one fight that not even his prodigious courage would allow him to beat.

Severiano Ballesteros Sota, of Spain, died on May 7 following a valiant battle with the cancer diagnosed as a malignant brain tumour after he lost consciousness in Madrid Airport on October 5, 2008. He underwent four operations at the La Paz Hospital in Madrid to remove the tumour and reduce the swelling in his skull as well as chemotherapy.

A superlative career offered a CV no other European golfer can match with five Major Championships, 50 European Tour wins, 37 other titles worldwide and, of course, a remarkable Ryder Cup record crowned by his winning performance as Captain in 1997 at Club de Golf Valderrama in Spain. That
career was cut short at the age of 40 by an arthritic back, but his death at 54 years old sadly brings a premature end to a life which embroidered the game and enriched us all.

Ballesteros blended skill, spirit and sheer will power as, playing with his heart, he fiercely contested every tournament in which he teed-up. Millions and millions globally were drawn to him by his passion and genius. His legacy can be measured not only by the titles he captured, but the way in which he won them. He threw caution and technique to the wind. You didn’t have to like golf to love Seve.

George O’Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour, said: “This is such a very sad day for all who love golf. Seve’s unique legacy must be the inspiration he has given to so many to watch, support, and play golf, and finally to fight a cruel illness with equal flair, passion, and determination. We have all been so blessed to live in his era. He was the inspiration behind the European Tour.”

Ballesteros, who on March 22, 1974, at the age of 16 years  11  months and 12  days became the youngest accredited professional tournament player in the history of Spanish golf, made his European Tour full debut that year in, appropriately, the  Open de España - coincidentally the tournament being played this weekend  and the last of his European Tour wins in 1995 - and then in 1976  he moved centre-stage at The 105th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

There, at the age of 19, he led for three days. The week before he had been bailing hay at home in Pedreña, Northern Spain, where at the age of seven he struck his first shots on the beach with a cut-down seven iron using stones as ammunition. Now he was living in a little house in Southport, on the
cusp of a glittering career. His caddie was a local lad, a policeman called Dick, and the weather was more Spanish than English. The country was in the grip of a heat wave.

The seaside crowd and those watching on TV were mesmerised by the young Spanish lad belting the ball as hard as he could. Ballesteros executed the pragmatism of youth – the shortest distance between two points being a straight line to the flag!

By the final day a nation was willing Ballesteros to hold off the might of America. He led by three with 17 holes to play but by the turn Johnny Miller had surged ahead. The title belonged to the Californian; but Ballesteros refused to submit. He produced a blistering birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie finish – five under in four holes – and secured a tie for second with Jack Nicklaus with a deft, cheeky pitch and run between bunkers at the 18th with which everyone present knew they had seen the embryonic flourish of a true superstar.

In many respects it was hardly a surprise that Ballesteros should erupt on the scene in Southport. The course sits amongst the dunes on the Lancashire coast adjacent to the Irish Sea. Pedreña, where Ballesteros was born on April 9, 1957 in a two-storey stone farmhouse that overlooked the Real Club de Golf de Pedreña, is a fishing village near Santander influenced by the Bay of Biscay. There Ballesteros grew-up, honed his game on the beach and later at the club built in 1929 at the request of King Alfonso XIII, and began to believe like all great players in a sense of destiny. It was inevitable that he would become a champion.

What increased his confidence was the loving encouragement he received from his father, Baldomero, himself a local hero as a five times winning oarsman in the Pedreña boat in the celebrated annual Regata de Traineras, and his mother, Carmen. They were a close family, especially on a Sunday, when Ballesteros would help his father in the cow shed while his mother prepared lunch.

I recall a breakfast with Seve at the Ritz in London when, with tears in his eyes, he spoke warmly of his parents – his father had now died - and three brothers. He said: “The biggest influence on my life was my parents and probably the surroundings because our house was right there on the golf course (Real Club de Golf de Pedreña). My uncle, Ramon Sota,  was also a professional golfer and he was very good.

“My father was always optimistic; he always believed in me. The house had belonged to my mother’s uncle. When we were growing up Baldomero, my eldest brother, had one bedroom, Manuel had another and I shared with Vicente. We were a happy family. We kept cows which my father looked after. He also fished, some for us to eat and some to sell, and he caddied. It seemed that he and my mother were always working.”

Later the tears turned to smiles when he recalled being drunk at the age of 12. He said: “I came home and my father and mother had gone fishing. My lunch had been left and there was a bottle of wine. I had four glasses. It did not go unnoticed when I returned to school; I was sent back home!”

Ballesteros swiftly gave up alcohol and school. His enjoyment at school was limited to playing with his friends and running. He won the regional championship for 1500m by 25 or 30m. They gave him a tiny trophy probably worth no more than 50p. But it was the first in his trophy cupboard. That thimble of a trophy, perhaps more than the three Open Championships he won or the two Green Jackets, illustrated how much he valued competition. He always craved to be a champion. His dreams never concerned money; quite simply he wanted to be the best.

Nevertheless it was challenging to learn the game. He said: “It was tough for me to begin with because I wasn’t allowed on the golf course. And like any child, when someone stops you from doing something, then you want it more badly. I would sneak on the course in the evening, practise on the second hole. I would also play that second hole from our house by hitting the ball from out of the backyard over on to the green. Then  I would run down the hill, grab the balls and run uphill again. This I did thousands of times.”

Seve’s upbringing unquestionably instilled the desire to succeed. Blessed with wonderful imagination, his ability to envisage and execute a shot took your breath away. You almost hoped
 that Ballesteros would stray from the straight and narrow because then you would be witness to a shot of such scintillating brilliance that even his playing partners would shake their heads in amazed acknowledgement.

One such shot contributed to Ballesteros  – his first European Tour win had come in the Dutch Open in 1976 – capturing the first of his three Open Championships in 1979.  Ballesteros was on the brink of completing an astonishing second round, having birdied the 14th, 15th and 17th to be five under for the day, when he hooked his last drive.  The ball came to rest on the down slope of the back of a bunker. Ballesteros, however, improvised a shot of such classic beauty that far from just finding the sanctuary of the green he landed the ball next to the hole. Another birdie, a 65.

What followed over the next two days was pure theatre. Ballesteros put together scores of 75 and 70 in brutal, blustery conditions. He was the only player to finish under par for the week and claimed the famous Claret Jug by three shots from Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus. He would win The Open Championship again in 1984 at St Andrews and back at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1988 and, of course, became in 1980 the first European to win the Masters Tournament and won again at Augusta National in 1983.

In 1979 Ballesteros and his compatriot Antonio Garrido created more history when they stepped onto the first tee at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and became the first continental players in a now European Ryder Cup Team. This launched a revolution that would transform the  biennial match with the United States and trigger a golfing explosion across the continent of Europe. In essence the Ballesteros factor meant that The European Tour, European golf, world golf would never be the same.

Ballesteros always wore his heart on his sleeve but such was his unique ability to blend consummate skill with unquenchable spirit and sheer will power that The Ryder Cup provided the perfect stage for his swashbuckling style. Even in the team’s slender defeat in 1983 at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, he produced another of those “shots heard round the world.” It came at the 18th against Fuzzy Zoeller – a  wood that  exited the fairway bunker where the lip was at its lowest, flew high with a slice and landed as softly as you like 18 feet from the hole.

Zoeller still talks about that shot 28 years later. He said: “It is still the greatest shot I have ever seen – not just in The Ryder Cup but anywhere. I still don’t believe it was possible but Seve saw what no-one else would have seen.”

In all Ballesteros, having guided Spain to World Cup victories in 1976 and 1977 and later the Continent of Europe to success in the inaugural Seve Trophy, made eight Ryder Cup appearances as a player – winning 20 points from 37 matches – and he formed with José Maria Olazábal the greatest Ryder Cup partnership of all time with 11 wins and two halves from 15 matches. Then came that special moment in 1997 when Seve, a real Captain Marvel of a leader, led Europe to victory at Valderrama and was presented with the Cup by the Infanta Maria, daughter of King Juan Carlos.

What followed, of course, was the realisation for Ballesteros that his arthritic condition would not allow him to resurrect a career that had brought him and his millions of admirers so much pleasure and enabled him to become the Number One golfer in the world.

Yet even though he had come to terms with this by announcing his competitive retirement he was then forced to use every ounce of the guts and determination that brought  him fame on the fairways to battle the wretched disease that would blight the last two years or more of his life.

Now we mourn the loss of Severiano Ballesteros Sota  who captured all our hearts and whose legacy is not simply to be found in the record books but also in the knowledge  that he  leaves the game far, far better than he found it.

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