Brian Viner: My unforgettable bunker lesson with Ballesteros

Even when the great man's career was in decline, he made time to help Brian Viner improve his short game, as well as talking Woods, wedges, putters and personalities
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The Independent Online

No golfer, not even Arnold Palmer, the nearest to him in terms of charisma and impact, ever struck as many remarkable shots as Seve Ballesteros. "Seve plays shots I don't even see in my dreams," Ben Crenshaw once said.

The first of these conjuring tricks, or at least the first in front of a global audience, one that prompted Henry Longhurst in the BBC commentary box to growl "it's not possible", was a thrillingly audacious bump-and-run on to the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, in the final round of the 1976 Open Championship. Ballesteros was just 19 years old, and it is strange now, as we mourn one of the true sporting gods, to recall that even his name back then seemed unpronounceable, rather like Martina Navratilova's around the same time.

After three rounds of 69, 69 and 73 on the scorched Birkdale links, the youngster held a two-shot lead over the mighty Johnny Miller in second place. Little-known players have led and even won the Open since then, but not at the age of 19, not as dashingly or fearlessly, and not so obviously as a presage of things to come. He scarcely spoke English in those days, but he didn't need to; the bump-and-run on the last hole could not have been a more eloquent declaration of his genius.

When I interviewed Ballesteros in Spain in 2002 I told him that I'd been in the crowd, not 20 yards away, watching him size up that shot. It had been an extraordinarily eventful last round in which his game, rather like that of Rory McIlroy in this year's Masters, had started to wilt in the fierce glare of the spotlight. While Miller, his playing partner, pieced together what would be a brilliant 66 to win by a six-shot margin, the Spanish teenager fell apart. The first 12 holes were disastrous, indeed it seemed unlikely that he would break 80. But then he showed that his game was as much about grit as it was about flair. He completed the last six holes in five under par to muster a 74 and tie for second with the great Jack Nicklaus.

At the last, Ballesteros needed a four to tie Nicklaus, but he was short and left of the green in two, confronting what seemed an impossible task. With two bunkers between his ball and the flagstick, a lofted wedge shot seemed the only option, which would be nigh-on impossible to stop on the parched ground.

I told him that we in the crowd had all groaned as he clipped his third shot low, only for the groans to become cheers as the ball skipped forward between the bunkers, almost as if tugged by a piece of string, coming to rest inside four feet and leaving a holeable putt that was duly, boldly, holed. "We thought you'd mishit it," I said. "I remember," he replied, and smiled. The smile could still have lit up Santander harbour on a dark night, even though by 2002 his golf game had been assailed by demons. Less than a fortnight before our interview he had returned an 89 in the first round of the Irish Open, and then, to add insult to indignity, was disqualified after signing for a 10 that should have been a 12.

His short game, however, was still a thing of wonder. Earlier on that July afternoon nine years ago, he had given me a bunker lesson, which was like getting a one-to-one physics tutorial from Einstein. And he spent the first few minutes of my private audience talking further about how I might improve. He really seemed to care, which was as ironic as it was touching, for it was his disintegration as a golfer, not my improvement, that I wished to talk about.

He had not made the cut in a major tournament since 1996 and his last top-10 finish in the Open had been in 1991, back at Birkdale. In 2002 the Open was at Muirfield and Ballesteros had been due to take part. But after that 89 in Ireland he withdrew, which saddened him more than he let on. The Open was the major he had won most (in 1979, 1984 and 1988) and the one closest to his heart, not least because he felt enveloped in such warmth from the British crowds.

There has been manifest grief in Spain since he died on Saturday, yet he often said that he felt far more appreciated in Britain than he did in his own country, and could be downright chippy at times about what he felt was, among his compatriots, insufficient respect for his achievements.

Michael Robinson, the former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland striker who bizarrely became one of Spain's most popular television football presenters, once told me that he and Ballesteros had sat together on an Iberia flight one day, and were invited into the cockpit by the sports-mad pilot. Robinson recounted: "The pilot said to Severiano: 'Will you take a look at my swing?' And he stood up and swung an imaginary golf club. Severiano just looked at him and said: 'What swing?' Then he went back to his seat. Had it been a British pilot, he would have been much nicer. He feels resentful towards the Spanish for not recognising him more, even when they do. When we're out together, I get asked for autographs more than he does."

It had been true enough, although Ballesteros assured me that his popularity in Spain had been boosted enormously by the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, where he (somewhat histrionically) captained the European team to a memorable victory. As for the sad decline in his own game, I approached the subject circumspectly. Around the green, I ventured, he seemed as good as ever. "It is still pretty good, though maybe not as good as it was," he said. "But I am still one of the best, I would say. The long game is my problem."

He explained in detail how he intended to recover his long game, and compete for majors again. It didn't happen. But if he'd at least stayed healthy, it would be fascinating now to hear his thoughts about the likelihood of Tiger Woods returning to the golfing summit. Seve never joined in the veneration of Tiger. On that July day in 2002, the world of golf was agog at the prospect of Woods, who had already won that year's Masters and US Open, completing the Grand Slam of all four majors. But when I asked whether he considered the American the greatest golfer of all time, Ballesteros had a ready answer.

"He is the most athletic golfer of all time," he said, "but not the greatest. Because he's very strong physically, that gives him a tremendous advantage mentally. His concentration too, his desire, is better than the rest. And of course he has very good technique. In 15 years' time he might be the greatest of all time, but right now it's still Jack Nicklaus. And I think that Nicklaus had better competition than Tiger has today."

Nonetheless, he recognised in the success of Woods, he added, the fear factor he'd once exploited himself. "In the US Open, next to Tiger, Sergio [Garcia] looked like a little ship next to the dock. My impression was that he was intimidated by Tiger. And that happens with the rest, too. I know this because I used to feel that others were intimidated by me. Tiger has that hard look in his eyes that I used to have. In matchplay, or medal play, when you say 'good luck,' you look straight into their eyes, and give them a kind of message. Your determination, your desire, your willpower, it is all in the eyes. And you know on the first tee whether the other guy feels intimidated. Some, like Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Paul Azinger, never did. But others you keep an eye on, looking for their weaknesses. For example, if he is a quick player, you walk slowly."

Ballesteros grinned. He approved of gamesmanship because it was a test of psychological strength. But he deplored players getting technological assistance. "I would ban the long putter," he told me. "Golf in my opinion was invented to reward the skill, ability and intelligence of the player. But when I see guys using that putter, on the short putts especially it looks like an incredible help. People who can't putt at all, all of a sudden they're making everything inside 20 feet."

I asked whether we shouldn't spare a thought for his friend Sam Torrance, whose career was extended by conversion to the broomhandle putter. "That's a good question. But if the long putter did not exist, Sam couldn't have tried it. He would have continued to find another way. I would also change the loft on the sand wedge, from 60 degrees to maximum 54, so there is more feel involved. Some guys carry four wedges, I need only one. I would have only 12 clubs in the bag, not 14, to eliminate all those wedges. And I would change the size of the ball. It should be bigger, to stop distance. Great golf courses all over the world are being redesigned, because with new technology players hit so far. That is wrong because great courses, like St Andrews, are pieces of art. The ball should be changed, not the course."

Ultimately, however, the change he yearned for most of all nine years ago was closest to home. "My main ambition," he said to me ruefully, "is to gain back some of the magic." Well, he might never have regained his competitive brilliance, but the magic of Seve Ballesteros never died. For as long as he is remembered, it will live on.