James Lawton: Montgomerie plays a masterstroke by tapping incomparable spirit of Ballesteros
Saturday 02 October 2010
Whatever else Colin Montgomerie achieves over the next few days he will not surpass, in either imagination or judgment, his decision to call Seve Ballesteros.
It meant that when the European Ryder Cup team, which includes six multi-millionaire rookies, spoke one by one to the cancer-stricken Spanish legend at the bidding of their captain they were in receipt of more than merely passionate encouragement.
They were exposed to a force which, today as much as 25 years ago when nothing in golf inspired more expectation than the sight of Ballesteros striding to the first tee, defines what it means to be one of the great sportsmen. Not, let's be sure, an accumulator of trophies, not a walking business corporation, but a great performer, a great man, someone who invests everything he does with an absolute commitment – and exaltation at the gifts he has received.
When the hugely talented and encouragingly successful, but ultimately still unproven, Rory McIlroy declared before this 38th Ryder Cup that for him the contest could never begin to match the challenge of winning a major, he was maybe merely stating a truth of a game that will always be largely shaped by highly individual psychology.
Yet it still seemed sharply at odds with the style of the man whose frail voice came down the line from Spain with exhortations to superlative performance here at Celtic Manor over the next few days.
Yesterday morning, in the foulest of weather, the European team, whose creation Ballesteros inspired as a teenager so precocious he was able to storm into second place in the 1976 Open, started so boldly the Spaniard might have been appearing magically at their sides.
He was hoping to travel here but his fight in the aftermath of two major brain operations, and some draining bouts of chemotherapy, have restricted him to only a few forays from the house where, with the utmost courage, he works to improve his general physical condition. He was seen at a football match recently, on the arm of Miguel Angel Jimenez, and travelled to Madrid to support Spain's bid for the 2018 World Cup, but each time he leaves his home it is clear that if he wins his fight for recovery it will inevitably be a long and exhausting business.
He is, though, as indefatigable as ever in his belief that if you want something badly enough, if you are prepared to fight for it in the most unpromising of circumstances, there is always a chance of some reward.
Certainly he rejects sympathy more firmly than he ever resisted the cries of a mesmerised public.
"I know I have a big fight," he declares, "but I think of my problems as war wounds of life and I'm determined to fight on. This doesn't worry me. It is something I have to do. I will be proud of myself if I win this battle as I am when I think back to when I was playing and feel that I helped to make golf the popular game it is today.
"The British people have always made me feel very loved and this pleases me a lot because it's the part of the world where my sport is best understood – and where my career had it's big start."
His resistance to the most serious illness can not be a surprise to anyone who saw him fight so hard when the best of his game left him, when he could no longer be sure of hitting a fairway – something, of course, that was less than completely certain when he was at the peak of his unpredictable brilliance – and there were times when it was haunting to see him battle on in the face of derision, especially on one occasion at Augusta when his ex-wife Carmen winced in despair when a member of the gallery shouted, "Hey, didn't that used to be Seve Ballesteros?"
Here this week Padraig Harrington recalled what was surely Ballesteros's defining fight against the loss of that blazing virtuosity which once made him one of the most compelling figures in all of sport, the winner of five majors and owner of a talent that was capable of conjuring the most stunning action in the most improbable places.
It was in Rochester, New York, in the 1995 Ryder Cup when Ballesteros faced Tom Lehman. Ballesteros could not find a fairway but repeatedly he discovered ways to stay in the fight. His work around the greens carried us back to the prime of his genius and in the end he managed to stretch out the fight to the last hole. This was extraordinary defiance and, as Harrington reports, it became the competitive core of the match. "Seve didn't win his match," said Harrington, "but he won the Ryder Cup. We saw how hard he fought, how much this thing meant to him, and so of course we [the European team] played to our very limits – and we won."
Such were the values Montgomerie pursued when he booked his call to Spain this week, but in a way it was a move which leapt beyond the mere gaining of some little surge of team momentum. Montgomerie, whether he planned it or not, was invoking something broader than a will to win. He was reaching out not just to a man of great courage and charisma. He was touching the most vital, and enduring, spirit of the game.
Giggs rallies to his struggling team-mate but Rooney's problems are self-inflicted
If any contemporary footballer can take a stab at applying the wisdom of the ages it is surely Ryan Giggs.
Eleven Premier League titles, 850 appearances, a brilliant survivor of the awesome pressure that came with being described, at least briefly, as the new George Best, Giggs brings much gravitas to his claim that his Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney is suffering no more than a temporary ambush of his highest ambitions.
Unfortunately, there is a certain glibness to his argument that the crisis in the career of England's most talented footballer has been imposed from outside – and the rejection of Kevin Keegan's assertion that Rooney fed the beast of celebrity culture when he sold his wedding to the highest bidder.
Giggs, whose autobiography, My Life,My Story, was published this week as a testament to a superb career shaped by an ever growing maturity in the matter of handling outside pressures, says, "It doesn't matter whether you sell your wedding photos or not, the pressures footballers have got both on and off the field have grown bigger. If he didn't sell his wedding photos, I think still people would be following him and giving him stick.
"It was the same when I was younger," Giggs adds. "I was 17, 18 and 19 and everything was going brilliantly and then as soon as you hit a bit of bad form the media want to know who you are going out with or your family history."
This, surely, is to understate the cause and the scale of Rooney's difficulties.
Rooney's private life has not briefly occupied a harsh spotlight. It has been relentlessly examined in the light of his behaviour away from the game and his progressive failure to maintain the kind of form which carried him to the World Cup this summer as one of the great players of the game.
It is not just that Rooney is playing so badly as to become unrecognisable or that an experience that seemed to fill him with joy every time he ran on the field has become, at least to all appearances, an unbearable ordeal.
What we have is a set of circumstances that creates not the worry of a slip in form that will right itself as a matter of course, but the fear that Rooney, marooned in his mansion and his regrets, will never regain the appetite for football that once seemed to be the core of his life.
Giggs, as My Life, My Story, illustrates clearly, has always been aware of the meaning of football – and the way it has enhanced his life. Rooney, at 24, has probably never been more in need of such an insight.
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