James Lawton: Why don't the stars of today burn as brightly as Seve did?
Of course, there's Bolt and Messi but none of the current generation of greats can create a depth of passion the way Ballesteros could
Monday 09 May 2011
Now that Seve Ballesteros's place in the history of sport has been secured by a 21-gun salute, one whose echoes will surely sound loud and true through what remains of the lives of all who saw him in his glory, we are maybe left with one last reflection.
Really it is more a question – and a rather haunting one.
How many more great sportsmen and women will we mourn with quite the same intensity that came on such a flood tide in the small hours of Saturday morning when we learned that Ballesteros had lost his brave fight against cancer?
No, this is not, at least it is not meant to be, some knee-jerk slur on those who shape sporting dreams. More it is to wonder if the dynamics and the priorities of the lives we lead and the nature of the rewards bestowed on those who do it most successfully mean that the kind of connection Ballesteros made with his audience, the depth of the passion it created, can ever again be produced quite so cleanly and so irrevocably?
Let's put it another way. How many new Seves are in the wondrous works? How many stars of today compel us to watch what they do not only with admiration for their talent but also a sense that they have brought to it the very deepest expression of their lives? Of course there are contenders – and hugely impressive they are.
In Beijing three years ago Usain Bolt thrilled the world with his astonishing 100 metres Olympic dash – and left it in an agony of hope that he would not, like his troubled predecessor Ben Johnson, be soon enough exposed as a fraud.
Lionel Messi has created the highest expectations in the planet's most popular game. Some already speak of him as football's greatest exponent, an absurd claim on behalf of a 23-year-old when you think of his compatriot Diego Maradona's near single-handed triumph in a World Cup and the amazing span of Pele's career and the credentials of at least a dozen other serious contenders for the distinction some already heap on the shoulders of the little marvel of Barcelona whose career was first nurtured by growth hormones.
Yes, of course, there will be a great salute for Messi when he walks away from the game, and that too will be remembered for as long as the history of football is recorded. However, what we had in Ballesteros, and still do, supremely, in the tragically diminished physical form of Muhammad Ali, was an emotional force that transcended so utterly the parameters of the fairways.
The mourning of Ballesteros is the kind that will, to an even greater degree, accompany the demise of Ali. It is about an idea that is perhaps not so easily generated in an age of massive sports celebrity and ever more inflated material rewards. The concept is of an individual for whom the idea of beating the world, on his own unique terms, comes as naturally as his first breath. Neither Ballesteros nor Ali may have persuaded us to mistake sport for the imperatives of real life but what they did, beyond doubt, was show us how, in the right hands, persuasively it can represent some of the best of it.
Ballesteros, like Ali, showed extraordinary belief in his nerve and his ability and his imagination. Ali beat George Foreman in a way that no one could have conjured without his courage, his sublime sense of what he could achieve in the most difficult of circumstances. As a teenager, Ballesteros wept because he had come close to winning his first Open against Johnny Miller and merely tied with Jack Nicklaus.
The achievement is one thing, the nature of its delivery is quite another. Ballesteros produced his with an unfailing ambition to achieve something remarkable, even when his game was in ruins, even on the day when his loved ones were in pain and rage to hear him lightly ridiculed by some members of the gallery at the US Masters. "Didn't that usedto be Seve Ballesteros?" someone chortled.
Ballesteros took the longest time to accept that his game had unraveled and no one could have fought harder to re-make it. The task certainly carried him beyond the sneers of a red-neck smartarse and the relentless pain in his back. It was though he had returned to the dark course of his youth back home in Spain, where caddies were allowed to play just once a year, carried back there with the conviction that if he had created something of such magic once, he might well do it again.
Perhaps that was one of the most important keys to opening up the enduring nature of Ballesteros. He was a self-made master, someone in whom no one had invested more time and belief than himself, and so there wasn't a swing coach or mentor in the world who could tell him where he had gone wrong – and how he might find his way back.
In all the eulogies of the weekend there was maybe an unstated but almost tangible presence, that of Tiger Woods who for so long appeared to have created his own astonishing legacy – somethingbuttressed against every ebb of form and confidence.
Yet when you measured the outpouring of respect and affection and, yes, love for the fallen Ballesteros, it was hard not to consider the current agony of the Tiger, and how he had emerged so dramatically at Augusta 14 years ago.
Woods also carried golf into a new dimension, a bewitching level of performance, a sense that here was someone who would not only re-write the records of golf but would show an unbreakable capacity to protect a talent that had erupted with such unique authority. Ballesteros, of course, never had unique authority. He had unique adventure and nerve – and a commitment that was indeed beyond challenge.
Now it is possible to draw a line between the origins and the making of the two golf prodigies. Woods was groomed and shaped by his father, an Army disciplinarian, a jungle fighter, and then he was welcomed into the great maw of corporate sponsorship, of sport not ultimately as a young man's dream but of unbounded wealth – of a world where everything was available at less than arm's length. Ballesteros made himself and now that he is gone we can only marvel all over again at the innocent splendour of his creation.
Maybe there is too much apprehension here – perhaps Messi will prove his admirers right, maybe he will go on to achieve something deeper and richer than his currently impressive body of work. Perhaps the Tiger will have some kind of epiphany and who knows it might be in a new understanding of what Ballesteros precisely achieved – and how hugely it went beyond the winning of a mere five majors.
Already, Woods has 14 such titles hanging from his belt but he probably doesn't need telling that at this moment they don't on their own seem quite so much when measured against the lasting impact of another young golfer who showed his ability to reach the stars.
Unlike Tiger, Ballesteros never lost sight of the stars. We can only hope that future generations of sport will know such inspiration.
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