Ballesteros, passionate genius with unique talent

The Spanish legend lost his battle with cancer yesterday. James Corrigan pays tribute to golf's pied piper who made the stuffy old game cool
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The reaction, as it always did with Severiano Ballesteros, said it all. If there was any doubt whatsoever that the Spaniard, who died yesterday aged 54, was so much more than a brilliant golfer then the weight of tributes, and, yes, their nature, stamped this ambivalence deep below the ancient game's most hallowed turf.

Indeed, as the whole of sport yesterday reflected on a career lit up more by golden moments than silverware, "five-time major champion" seemed about as an appropriate a prefix for Ballesteros as "three-time heavyweight champion" does for Muhammad Ali. Granted his stats were impressive – 91 titles worldwide, 50 alone in Europe – but with Ballesteros the numbers painted only the simplest outline of the story. And what a story it remains.

The son of a farm labourer who mastered the rich man's sport with a rusty old three-iron and proceeded to master mighty America and so transform the perception of a game for fuddy-duddies into a pursuit for swashbucklers... It is difficult to exaggerate the influence Ballesteros was to bear on European golf. Perhaps Nick Price put it best yesterday. "He did for European golf what Tiger Woods did for worldwide golf," said the Zimbabwean. Woods is an interesting comparison. The 14-time major winner paid homage yesterday, saying:"Seve's creativity and inventiveness may never be surpassed." Yet neither will Seve's passion. Or, most definitely,his charisma.

While Woods and others have refined the fist-pump as an aggressive rite of celebration, with that cheeky grin Ballesteros made it endearing. When he stood on that 18th green at St Andrews in 1984 and hailed the 10-footer which had awarded him the second of three Claret Jugs, the air received a joyous pummelling throughout his continent. Nowhere more so than in Britain; the country which loved him maybe more than his own.

It says so much about Ballesteros that he was able to cut through the jingoism that envelops every other big-time sporting event held on these shores. Imagine Wimbledon's CentreCourt putting all its support behinda Spaniard when their own men were still standing. The Open did. Sir Nick Faldo acknowledged that if it was him versus Ballesteros coming down the stretch in Britain there would only be one crowd favourite.

He was unique in the sense that his talent was involved in a lifelong battle with his vulnerability. Off the course, where he sometimes appeared a bitter and frustrated individual, the God-given was never going to be enough; but on the fairways it invariably proved the master. Ballesteros would have made a great James Bond. Naturally, the swagger, the good looks and the nonchalance were all present. And with it came the ability to escape from the tightest of corners. As he plotted his way through or under or over the trees (or in some cases all three) it was easy to envisage the circular sword heading for 007's midriff. How would he get his way out of this bind. Ah, that's how.

It was a gift he earned as an obsessed child on the beaches of his home town, Pedreña. What he learnt in those manual-free days of blessed instinct and feel established him as an absolute marvel. Fellow major-winners would come up to him, begging him to teach them how to play this bunker shot or that chip. Ballesteros would usually co-operate, but with a smirk. The technique was one skill; the chutzpah under the gun another.

It is why the memories of Ballesteros abound. From the vision of that skinny, mop-haired 19-year-old outrageously threading a chip between two bunkers on the 18th at Birkdale to finish second in the 1976 Open; to the shot from the car park at the 1979 Open at Lytham; to his iconic response to glory at the Old Course; to anothersublime pitch for victory at the 1988 Open. In truth, that shouldn't have been his last major win, although perhaps as far as The Masters was concerned, the two-time champion was mortally wounded by his submission to the resurrected Jack Nicklaus in 1986. Certainly Nicklaus wouldn't have credited it.

After all, it was the greatest-ever who praised Ballesteros for hitting "the greatest shot ever" when under the lip of a fairway bunker in Florida in 1983. That ridiculous three-wood was struck in the Ryder Cup and encapsulated Ballesteros's attitude to the biennial dust-up. Nobody ever did, or will, take the match any more personally than Ballesteros. He sharpened an edge in an event Nicklaus called "an exhibition" and in doing so "saved the Ryder Cup". That was the verdict of Tony Jacklin, the captain who persuaded Ballesteros to play after a stupid ban in 1981 because of an "appearance fee" controversy.

Imagine no Seve in the Ryder Cup and, more pertinently, no Seve and Ollie. America would probably like to; or then, perhaps not, as years later even his biggest US rivals looked back with a fondness for the heat he generated. The latter is Jose Maria Olazabal, the countryman who Ballesteros partnered to an unprecedented record of 12 points from 15 foursomes and fourballs. How apt that Olazabal will captain Europe in next year's game in Chicago. It will be so emotional for the apprentice conquistador who sounded and acted like a man yesterday who had just lost his soul mate.

"There will never be another like him," said Olazabal, after playing the third round of the Spanish Open in an irrelevant 75 shots. "There can be others that are very good, but none will have his charisma."

Maybe Olazabal's influence will help the European Tour arrive at its senses and install a permanent memorial. It is a disgrace that a sponsor was able to rename the Seve Trophy a few years ago, although the officials will point out the team event would have perished without backing. True, Ballesteros could be difficult, self-centred, uncontrollable even in his regular clashes with authority, but surely now is the time for the Tour officially to recognise what he did to raise it to such heights.

And everywhere you peered in golf yesterday the loss was written large. Primarily in the surreal minute's silence observed at the Spanish Open and, of course, on the shattered countenance of Olazabal. "He was in floods of tears out there," said Colin Montgomerie, who partnered the 45-year-old. "Seve was his older brother, really.It was a very, very sad day for Jose Maria." For him and his sport. And way, way beyond.

His five greatest moments

1976 Open Championship: Birkdale

The skinny 19-year-old announced himself to the world by finishing runner-up to Johnny Miller. Ballesteros led by two shots going into the final round, but his erratic driving caught up with him. Yet still the magic came, right until the last hole. His outrageously cheeky chip-and-run between two greenside bunkers on the par-five 18th was the eureka moment for many of his admirers. "That shot alone convinced me Seve was a genius," said coach John Jacobs.

1978 Hennessy Cup: The Belfry

It was basically an exhibition match between GB and Europe but there was tension in the air when Ballesteros and Nick Faldo arrived at the 10th tee. The former was one up and the safe play was a six-iron in front of the water before a sand-wedge on. But Ballesteros had another idea and, with a one-wood over the trees to within eight feet of the hole, became the first pro to find the green with his drive in competition. It issued a challenge to each and every golfer – are you man or mouse, kitten or conquistador? The 10th is now named after him.

1983 Ryder Cup, PGA National: Florida

Ballesteros had been three up with five to play against Fuzzy Zoeller and after driving into knee-high rough and then hacking his ball under the lip of a fairway bunker, it was suddenly odds on that he would lose. He had 245 yards to a green heavily guarded by water. He picked out a three-wood and with what Jack Nicklaus called "the finest shot I've ever seen", picked it clean off the sand before landing it just 20 feet from the pin. A half had been rescued, a new legend written.

1984 Open Championship: St Andrews

Ballesteros holed so many 10-footers it seems ludicrous to single out one. But as any entertainer knows, sometimes the simplest of lines provokes the most drama. Long-time leader Tom Watson had just double-bogeyed the Road Hole 17th and Ballesteros knew what it meant. His glory putt on the last appeared certain to miss on the high side. Yet Seve knew different. As he arched his back, so his ball followed a similar curve. And so it toppled in and so Seve embarked on his famous fist-pumping celebration.

1988 Open Championship: Lytham

Ballesteros was one stroke ahead of playing partner Nick Price going down the 18th. With Price on the green, 30 feet away, Ballesteros missed the green to the left. A play-off loomed. But with the deftest of flicks, Ballesteros conjured a magical chip which rolled towards the hole, kissed the rim and finished within a few inches. It was his fifth and final major and lives long in the memory. Two decades later, Geoff Ogilvy headed directly to that point in practice. "I just had to see the spot where he'd been," said the Australian. "I'd played that shot in my mind so often."

James Corrigan

The world mourns Ballesteros

Jose Maria Olazabal

'The best tribute we can pay to Seve is to go on playing for him, although no tribute will ever do justice to everything he did for golf and to everything he gave us'

Jack Nicklaus

'No matter the golf that particular day, with Seve you always knew you were going to be entertained. His enthusiasm was unmatched by anybody that ever played the game'

Tiger Woods

'I was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Seve Ballesteros. He was one of the most talented and exciting golfers to ever play the game. His creativity and inventiveness on the golf course may never be surpassed. His death came much too soon'

Lee Westwood

'It's a sad day. We've lost an inspiration, genius, role model, hero and friend. Seve made European golf what it is today'

Bernard Gallacher

'America had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer – Seve was our Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus rolled into one. You can't speak too highly of him, Seve was Europe's best-ever player. He felt it was his duty as the best player in the world to inspire the European team'

Sergio Garcia

'He has inspired me so much throughout my career and I admired him above all for his fighting spirit – never more so than in the manner in which he has battled this terrible illness'

Paul Azinger

'Seve was the toughest, most passionate, most patriotic competitor I've ever faced. We had our run-ins in the Ryder Cup. But we remained friends. When I got sick [of cancer] Seve was one of the first to call'

Billy Foster, Seve's caddie

'He was the ultimate shot-maker. You can go on about the 91 titles and the five major championships he won but he'll always be remembered as the man who played shots no one else dared dream of'

Rafael Nadal

'What he did in sport is unbelievable. These are tough moments. Seve was great, a model for all Spanish athletes who had the good fortune to meet him and play with him'

Nick Faldo

'I would call him the Cirque du Soleil of golf. He was the greatest show on earth"