Golf as a sport is often associated with tradition, reserve and convention. However, none of these terms could ever be applied to Seve Ballesteros, a player renowned for his flair, passion and breathtaking determination both on and off the course. Sadly, the legendary Spaniard, Europe’s first golfing superstar, passed away in the early hours of Saturday 7 May 2011 – surrounded by his family at his home in Pedreña – due to complications arising from respiratory failure.
Born on 9 April 1957 in Pedreña, Seve learned the game while playing on the beaches near his home, during the time while he was supposed to be studying in school, mainly using a 3-iron given to him by one of his older brothers. Turning professional in March 1974 at the age of 16, he burst onto the international golf scene with a second-place finish in the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In his prime, Seve combined raw power, sublime touch and skill, playing the game as it had never been played before. It was effective too: winning 87 titles – including The Open three times (’79, ’84, ’88) and the Masters twice (’80, ’83) – in addition to four Ryder Cups as a player (’85, ’87, ’89, ’95). But still more importantly, perhaps, he captured the hearts, minds, and collective imagination of all those ever privileged enough to have watched him play.
Even in the twilight of his career, long after he had ceased to become a contender in tournaments, he still competed with zealous enthusiasm and drive, desperate to rediscover the form that had taken him to the top of the golfing world.
At times, this struggle was infused with a great deal of sadness, but this merely served to amplify the affection sporting fans worldwide felt for this great champion – an affection which remains evident, as tributes have continued to pour in from all corners of the globe in the wake of his untimely death.
Ballesteros has been hailed as a “genius”, “the king of European golf” and “Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus rolled into one”. Former Ryder Cup team-mate Howard Clark said: “We are looking at a top artist — the king of European golf, if you like, for many years. He brought excitement into the European game as Arnold Palmer did into the American game. Everybody drew another breath when he played — it was like watching a masterpiece.”
Seve’s capacity to command so much respect and attention was undoubtedly a corollary, first and foremost, of his sublime talent, yet also in part due to his volatility and his ability to get himself out of trouble.
After all, he was the man who played ‘The Car Park Shot’, one of the most celebrated shots in golfing history, now and forever the stuff of legend. That came at the 1979 Open at Royal Lytham when he hit his tee shot at the 16th into a temporary car park.
The ball came to rest beneath an old Ford Cortina. Ballesteros assessed the lie, composed himself, swung – as ever – from the hip, leaving a 20 foot putt for birdie. He holed it and went on to win his first Claret Jug.
Certainly there were more consistent players, better drivers of the ball, those more dependable with the putter, too. But as The Times’ much-respected golf writer, John Hopkins, noted in 2008, when Ballesteros was first diagnosed with a brain tumour: “If I had to put my house on someone getting out of greenside rough, clearing a gaping bunker the other side of which was a flagstick set on a down slope and stopping the ball close enough to sink the ensuing putt, then I would unhesitatingly summon Ballesteros.”
Seve helped redefine golf for a new generation of players. Following this, he redefined the role of captain when he led Europe in 1997 at Valderrama. He was the first coach of a sporting team to ignore the theoretical white lines that divide a manager from the players taking part. Ballesteros captained that European Ryder Cup team from the middle of the fairway, always there on his golf cart, cajoling his men, playing every shot. He may have finished playing but Seve never finished competing.
And this was true right until the very end. He played and lived from the heart, winning in both. His loss, at the age of only 54, is not merely a saddening blow to golf, but to all those who play and believe in the values of sport. Although Seve’s own personal round may have now been drawn to an early close, he’s left behind many wonderfully memories, lasting lessons, and undeniable highlights. Typical Seve.