James Lawton: Seve - fierce commitment and uncharted brilliance

Ballesteros's death was more than the end of a great sports career

The great matador Manuel Benitez announced to his young sister that he would dress her in the finest clothes – or in mourning. His compatriot Seve Ballesteros never made such a declaration. It wouldn't have been appropriate on the lips of a golfer, because when Seve was young the game he embraced as if it was life itself made no great call on Spanish emotions.

Last night, though, we could measure the extent of his achievement because much of his country, and the wide world of sport, were indeed in the deepest mourning.

There were times when the golf of Ballesteros was almost incidental. The passion and the grace and the burning eyes and the windswept hair and the noble head and the wild, fist-pumping self-belief were what commanded the attention of his people as much as the superb anarchy of his play, and they sent a great charge through a game that had never known such fierce commitment and uncharted brilliance.

Ballesteros's death, which came after a typically brave and stoic reaction to the crushing news of a cancerous brain tumour, was more than the end of a great sports career. It was the last sigh of a man who brought a flamenco snap to everything he did, whose life of 54 years was perhaps not so cruelly compressed as it might have seemed at the first news that he had gone. Not, at least, for anyone who had seen the poignant truth that when Ballesteros could no longer play golf as masterfully as a god and, sometimes, as impishly as a street urchin, a central part of his existence had disappeared.

Ballesteros at times hinted as much. His obsession with golf, a game far from the heart of most young Spaniards, was nurtured by the evidence that it could provide a boy of humble stock with a good living, something far above the expectations of his father, who worked on the land around the Real Golf Club of Pedrena on the Gulf of Santander.

Severiano's uncle Ramon Sota was professional champion of Spain four times and once finished sixth at the US Masters, a title his nephew would win twice in a blaze of virtuosity. The boy could see the most desirable of lives and he pursued the ambition as single-mindedly as the torero Benitez, better known as El Cordobes. But there was a price, one he acknowledged in the wake of his failed marriage to Carmen, the mother of his three children, and later the death in a car crash of his girlfriend.

Ballesteros saw more clearly than ever before that when he embraced golf, playing in the moonlight on a course banned to caddies but for one day of the year, he had immersed himself in a game which had brought him unimagined fame and wealth but one that also, when it withdrew its favours, and was no longer susceptible to his fierce will, had left him with a hollow place in the pit of his stomach – and a sometimes almost unbearable pain in his back.

El Cordobes had played with the bulls in the Andalucian breeding fields in the night, a gypsy boy, impertinent and impatient, and Ballesteros fashioned his game, almost completely self-taught, on the forbidden course and then on the neighbouring beach. The bullfighter risked his life; the golfer placed his in a tunnel from which in the end there was really no escape.

That was the truth which, at least in the view of so many of his warmest admirers, haunted the corridors of the La Paz hospital in Madrid, before he died surrounded by his family at his home in Pedrena.

Life isn't a game, of course, but the tragedy behind the glory of Seve Ballesteros was that sometimes he plainly found it hard to distinguish between the two. He wept unashamedly in defeat and was distraught when he finished second as a 19-year-old at the Open at Royal Birkdale in 1976. Ballesteros always lived in the moment, and if such anguish was hard to understand after he had been beaten only by the superstar American Johnny Miller, and tied with Jack Nicklaus, it was soon enough widely understood that the thin, intense youth played only to win. It wasn't considered an ambition; it was a birthright.

He won three Opens along with his Masters titles, and each time he won a major he seemed to journey a little deeper into the improbable, even the surreal.

When he won his first Open, the American Hale Irwin sneered that the Claret Jug had gone to the "car-park" champion, a wild hitter who had had to retrieve his ball from under a car. Ballesteros smouldered and went on to dazzle the world.

Before the range of his genius began to ebb, irretrievably, he was able to produce one last great expression of it. It was in his final major triumph at Lytham in 1988. He overwhelmed the tough and gifted pro Nick Price with golf that was filled with all of his nerve and invention and a touch that was rarely less than exquisite. For his last round he wore a blue sweater, and the banner headline was inevitable: Rhapsody in Blue.

But then if Seve Ballesteros was in some ways a rhapsody that turned into a lament, his meaning was never threatened, not even when his life rushed away these last few days.

When he received the grim diagnosis, he thanked all his admirers for their messages of support and said he would fight with as much courage and serenity as it was possible to muster. Serenity was something that had been denied him for some time, even to the extent that reports of an attempted suicide were not lightly dismissed.

But then if it was true that in his last days Seve Ballesteros found a degree of that elusive serenity, it may have had something to do with the fact that finally he understood quite how he was valued by the galleries he had fought so hard, and sometimes so desperately, to please. There was a time when he seemed to believe that everything he had achieved was finely balanced on the brilliance of his next shot. Of course it wasn't. Few sportsmen on earth had less reason to worry about the meaning of what they had done – and how much they would always be loved.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Getty
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor