Seve Ballesteros: Hero, Legend, And The Man I Wanted As Godfather To My Son

With a new film of his life story, 'Seve', about to be released here's a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest golfers ever.
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With a new film of his life story, 'Seve', about to be released here's a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest golfers ever.

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“You look strong. Your shoulders, they look strong.” Severiano Ballesteros was standing in the hallway of his home in Pedrena, northern Spain, greeting me like an old friend. Sadly, the same could not be said for the great man. He looked gaunt and frail. Those flashing dark eyes sunken and shock of dark hair thinning, it was impossible to ignore the scars from the life-saving operations to remove part of the tumour in his brain. And yet despite the terrible toll the cancer had taken on this most vital of human beings, his spirit remained intact. It was this spirit, a heady, intoxicating blend of unquenchable desire, unfeasible charisma and a talent bequeathed only by the gods that first sparked my love affair with golf. There are millions more who will say the same. Now, seeing my hero reduced to this made me want to cry. The only thing I could do was hug him and tell him how good it was to see him.

I had travelled to Pedrena, a small fishing village across the bay from Santander, with representatives of Cancer Research UK, the umbrella organisation for the Seve Ballesteros Foundation. We were there to pitch an idea for a fund-raising tournament to be held on the par-3 course he had built in the garden of his grand home on the hill overlooking the sea. As Seve’s condition prevented him from travelling, and his medical team had crushed his hopes of appearing in a past champions event as a curtain raiser for the Open Championship at St Andrews, our plan was to bring the golfing world to Seve; the mountain to Mohammed. All those who had played with, loved, lost to and learned from Seve would come to Pedrena to pay tribute. As I had explained to his nephew Ivan, what we wanted to do most was to make Seve happy.

Pedrena is Ballesteros country; it was where he was born and where he stayed. His house is the biggest on the hill, a stone’s throw from the modest home he grew up in. From the exquisitely landscaped and manicured pitch and putt course in the grounds of Seve’s home, Ivan pointed out the houses of the three older Ballesteros brothers. Family, friends and those who really knew him populated this hillside. Even the road that hugs the shore and delivers visitors to the boundary of the Royal Pedrena Golf Club, where the young Seve used to jump over the fence and practice in the dark, is named after its most famous son.

There was no question that I would be pulling for him and I am happy to say I was beside the green, being hammered by raindrops like stair rods, when he holed the decisive putt on the 37th hole.

Before meeting Ivan and being taken up the house I had driven on through Pedrena to the stretch of beach on which Seve had taught himself the game, using the rusty head of an old 3-iron with a stick as a shaft and pebbles as balls. Looking back at Pedrena from the beach, Seve’s house jutted as proudly from the horizon as his jaw once did when he was taking on and slaying the world’s best.

*****

For me, it was always Seve; he was somebody I grew up with. In 1982, I had only recently started chipping balls round the municipal pitch and putt course when I first clapped eyes on the man who would become my hero for the next 30 years. It was the final of the Suntory Matchplay Championship at Wentworth and I was being chaperoned by an elderly friend of my father, a Wentworth member and a man whose swing was as far removed from the graceful, fluid arc of Ballesteros’ action as it was possible to envisage. He told me that earlier in the week, Seve had audaciously chipped in for an eagle on the 18th hole to take the great Arnold Palmer to a playoff, breaking the old stager’s heart with victory at the first extra hole. Now, though, the tournament was down to two men, and only home favourite Sandy Lyle, a Scot bidding to become the first British winner of the title, stood between Seve and the giant silver trophy he had lifted for the first time a year before.

What struck me – and has stayed with me - about that wet, muddy day on the West Course at Wentworth was how so many people in a British crowd were pulling for a Spaniard. There was something about the way he moved, the intensity he brought to his work, the finesse he applied to his art, that instantly appealed, but it there was something more, indefinable, to his magnetism. He was handsome, his swing was a thing of beauty and there was a courage, conviction and pride in everything he did. There was no question that I would be pulling for him and I am happy to say I was beside the green, being hammered by raindrops like stair rods, when he holed the decisive putt on the 37th hole.

A year later, I can recall watching on television as he pulled off one of the greatest shots in history, carving a 3-wood from under the lip of a fairway bunker on the final hole of his singles match in the 1983 Ryder Cup, to earn a half with Fuzzy Zoeller. His three points out of a possible five were not ultimately to be tallied against a European win but they sowed the seeds for what was to come.

In 1984, as a 13-year-old, I arrived home from a family holiday just in time to see Seve play the final two holes of the Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews. Throughout the holiday, I had followed his progress in the papers, knowing full well that he had dropped a shot on three consecutive days on what reporters kept referring to as ‘the infamous Road Hole’, the 17th. Bursting into the house, I switched on the television in time to see Seve standing in the rough, resplendent in his iconic final day outfit of dark blue trousers, dark blue Slazenger sweater; white shoes, white shirt. The commentator explained that he faced one of the toughest shots in all of golf. Concentration was etched on his face and his 6-iron soared and, as I later discovered when playing the Old Course, seemed to defy logic by settling on the perilously narrow strip of green between the cavernous Road Hole bunker and the tarmac road and wall behind that would ultimately do for Tom Watson, playing in the group behind.

At The Belfry a few months later, Seve was back to his old self: the catalyst, lightning rod and de-facto leader of a European team that wrestled the Ryder Cup from American hands for the first time since 1957

Minutes later, Seve holed a birdie putt on the 18th green that will forever be etched into the minds of all those that saw it; ball teetering on the lip, falling and then fists pumping, teeth flashing. It was an all-consuming moment. I have watched that putt many, many times since that day in July 1984 and not once has it failed to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

In 1985, on the Friday of the Open Championship at Royal St George’s on England’s south coast, the skies glowered, clouds scudded and all across the barren links, spectators huddled underneath umbrellas or slapped themselves warm within thick outer layers of waterproof clothing. I had gone down on the train with three school friends, all of us hooked on Seve’s exploits and rare genius and spending every spare moment trying to copy him. As soon as we were admitted to the grounds, we trekked across the rolling terrain in pursuit of our hero. When we found him, he was struggling, scowling and at war with the world. It was clear by the day’s end that he would not be retaining the trophy he had clutched to his chest and kissed the year before.

At The Belfry a few months later, Seve was back to his old self: the catalyst, lightning rod and de-facto leader of a European team that wrestled the Ryder Cup from American hands for the first time since 1957. Sam Torrance might have holed the winning putt, and been the subject of an iconic image that signified a shift in golf’s global axis, but it was Ballesteros who had led from the front. For the legions of youngsters taking up the game in this period, he was our captain, our hero. Quite simply, Seve was our reason for playing.

The 1986 Masters at Augusta National is now regarded as one of the greatest major championships of all-time. At the age of 46 and some six years removed from his last win in a major, Jack Nicklaus claimed his 18th grand slam title by charging through the field on the final day with a brilliant round of 65. But for those of us who marched to the tune of a different piper, the tournament was to be a painful reminder that our hero was only human after all.

Leading the tournament amid the raucous cheers of Nicklaus’ Sunday charge, Seve’s drive on the par-5 15th hole left him in the perfect spot to reach the green with his second shot. The resulting birdie would surely set up another visit to the Butler Cabin and a third Green Jacket in seven years. Sadly, what followed, many believe, was the single shot that brought Seve Ballesteros face to face with his own mortality; a pulled, fatted 4-iron that never looked like clearing the lake guarding the front of the green.

Bad weather forced the tournament into an extra day and I remember clutching my betting slip as Seve traded blows with the valiant Nick Price, before employing those famously soft hands to coax the ball from a grassy indentation to the left of the final green to within inches of the hole

Twelve months on, disaster struck again at Augusta as Seve three-putted the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, and was left to walk back up the 10th fairway to the clubhouse in tears as the unheralded Larry Mize prevailed a hole later with a chip-in that drove a dagger into the heart of Greg Norman. Redemption of sorts was to come that September as Europe followed up their breakthrough triumph at The Belfry with an historic first win on American soil. At Muirfield Village in Ohio, a course designed by the great Jack Nicklaus, who captained the US team that year, Seve teamed up with his young Spanish protégé, the precociously talented Jose Maria Olazabal, to claim three points out of a possible four on the first two days. For the new generation of British golfers that stayed up through the night to watch on TV as the contest reach its climax, it was only fitting that the match should be won be the man who had done more than anyone to rescue it from the moribund sequence of US domination. My friend Mark and I, the keenest of golfing rivals on the course, caught the tube to Heathrow Airport on the Monday evening and waited for hours to welcome the team home.

Seve won his third Open Championship title, his fifth and final major, in 1988 at Royal Lytham & St Annes, the scene of his maiden major triumph nine years previously. Bad weather forced the tournament into an extra day and I remember clutching my betting slip as Seve traded blows with the valiant Nick Price, before employing those famously soft hands to coax the ball from a grassy indentation to the left of the final green to within inches of the hole. Our man was back, though we could not know that it would be this would be his major swansong. Seve would add another 14 titles to his bountiful list of worldwide victories, and top the European Money List in 1991, altough he was never quite the same player again.

In 1989, I drove to the Ryder Cup, again held at The Belfry, and camped in the car park in a sky blue Morris Minor. On the second day, we awoke early and were one of the first through the gates. The dew was still on the grass when we found a spot behind the 3rd green and promptly fell asleep. Awaking some hours later, the scene had been transformed: the crowds were 10-deep and there was a sense of nervous amusement in the air.  There was also a ball between my feet and a familiar figure striding towards it. Needless to say, it was Seve and he got up and down.

*****

“You have a girl?” I had to admit I hadn’t. It was 2003 and I was interviewing Seve for the first time; me sitting in the offices of a men’s magazine in London, Seve at home in Pedrena. I had just concluded our conversation by telling a golfer who had been missing cut after cut and who was by then semi-crippled with back pain, but who refused to bow to his pride, that I loved him – truly - and wanted him to be godfather to my first son. I had explained to him I planned to call this child Seve. “Ok,” said the voice from the other end of the line. “You find a girl, you have a son and then we talk.”

I reminded the great man of this when I next spoke to him, this time face to face, a few years later at an event at Harrods to launch an extravagant, large format book documenting his career. On that occasion, Seve had signed a photograph of a friend of mine. In the picture, said friend was captured playing a deft chip shot from the undergrowth whilst dressed as Jimmy Hendrix. Seve looked puzzled when I presented the printout. I tried to explain that the madcap, fancy-dress, extreme chipping contest we staged in North Devon each year was inspired by his own short game genius, although I still wonder whether Seve suspected I was a lunatic. The framed autographed image is still one of my friend’s most treasured possessions.

I built a small shrine to Seve above the fireplace in my flat and at every opportunity looked at the picture of him punching the skies at St Andrews in 1984, the tape on which he had said he might consider being godfather to my as yet unborn son, and the autographed scorecard of one of the many courses he had designed.

In 2006 at Hoylake on the Wirral, Seve made his last appearance at the Open. The British fans who had adopted him as one of their own since he first erupted onto the world stage by finishing joint second as a teenager in 1976, a few miles away at Royal Birkdale, again turned out in force to envelop their hero in the love and respect he deserved. By this stage, his game was in such a mess that when he was called onto the first tee, his eldest son carrying his bag, the gaggle of reporters that assembled came in the expectation of a car crash. The links of Royal Liverpool were burnt to a crisp that year, and Seve ballooned his opening drive weak, high, and right. Heads were shaking when he was still short of the green of a par-4 hole in three shots.

What followed was the Seve of latter years in microcosm; terrible, wayward driving rescued by the most mercurial short game. I still talk about the shot he executed at the 7th hole on day two. Having topped his drive, slashed out onto the fairway and then duck-hooked his approach to the green, he was left with a seemingly impossible shot from around 40 yards shot over a bunker to a flag set just a few yards onto the green. The chip he conjured from the wispy grass again seemed to defy physics, the ball leaving the club face in slow motion and landing like a butterfly in ballet shoes, enabling him to tap in for a bogey when most mere mortals would have been reaching for their calculators. I followed his every hole for two rounds, wincing at his long game and yet marvelling at his undiminished powers of recovery. It was the last time I ever saw him play.

When news broke that Seve had collapsed at Madrid Airport in 2008, and was soon after diagnosed with brain cancer, I felt the same dread fear as if being informed one of my own immediate family’s life was now in grave danger. I built a small shrine to Seve above the fireplace in my flat and at every opportunity looked at the picture of him punching the skies at St Andrews in 1984, the tape on which he had said he might consider being godfather to my as yet unborn son, and the autographed scorecard of one of the many courses he had designed.

As a guest in the pro-am of the Omega European Masters at Crans Montana, high in the Swiss Alps, I made a pilgrimage to the plaque on the 18th hole that commemorates one of his greatest ever recovery shots - a pitching wedge sent vertically upwards over a wall and through a tiny gap in the trees before again defying logic - and physics, by straightening out and flying straight towards the green some 130 yards away. Every professional golfer I have interviewed over the years has been asked for their favourite memories of Seve.

I feel honoured and privileged to have been able to visit him at his home in Pedrena before he died.  He gave me, and so many like me, so much. I loved him as one can only love a true hero and only wish that he could have been around for the arrival of my first son, although I don’t for one minute believe he would have remembered the conversation. I’d also have loved to take him up on his invitation at that last meeting in Pedrena, namely that the next time I came to see him we would play the par-3 course in his garden together. As he said, “I’ll pitch, you putt.” It would have been bliss.

Follow Dan @MrDanDavies

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