Ken Brown: Seve was our pilot: bold, generous, glamorous – and a great team man
Seve Ballesteros could play shots we could only dream of – but that didn't stop him trying to teach us, recalls his friend and former Ryder Cup team-mate
Monday 09 May 2011
We have a wonderful group of players today but what a cast list we had back in the 1980s and '90s. Sandy Lyle, loveable, unassuming, brilliant; Bernhard Langer, hard-working, no stone left unturned; Ian Woosnam, the farmer's son and up for taking on anyone; Nick Faldo, the straight man, work, work, work. And, of course, Severiano Ballesteros.
Seve was the glamorous front man, a cavalier with an unshakeable self-belief. He was the one who led the way. Lyle, Langer, Woosie and Faldo would all say the same. They were the players in seats 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D. But none of them was the pilot flying Concorde. Seve was the pilot.
Today, we have the players in the front row of the plane but perhaps we don't have a pilot. Hopefully, one of them will grow into that role but no one could do it the way Seve did.
What an absolute superstar he has been for the game of golf. He was the perfect man at the perfect time.I can still remember the first time I saw him. I had just pre-qualified for a tournament at Fulford in 1975 and I went out to watch some of the players practising. I wanted to watch the great Roberto de Vicenzo, who was playing with Vicente Fernandez and a good-looking young Spaniard with dark, short hair.
There was no one watching and Seve did not speak any English but within minutes he had made an impression. You didn't know yet if he was going to be a great player, but the dazzling smile, the charisma, the inner confidence we came to know and love was obvious immediately.
It was only a year later that he came to the attention of people outside the game with his performance in the Open at Royal Birkdale. We knew he was very different then, hitting it all over the place but scrambling for all his life and everyone remembers that amazing chip-andrun between the sand dunes at the last hole. He didn't win that year but a star was born.
I had not played with Seve before the 1976 Open but I did many times over the years, including when he won the Open for the first time at Royal Lytham in 1979. We were a complete contrast. I think we got paired together a lot because of that.
I had no glamour whatsoever and we played the game in totally different fashions but it was always a thrill. He made golf exciting.
Golf at the time was a game of chess. That is the way our predecessors, the likes of Brian Huggett, Neil Coles and Christy O'Connor Snr, played the game - plotting their way safely around the course.
Seve was the first player I knew who would take on the carry over a dogleg. Like at the third hole at Portmarnock, where if the tide is in and you get it wrong, you would end up in the sea. So for the likes of us it was a three-iron plonked down to the corner of the dogleg, then a sixiron to the green. No one had ever thought of hitting a driver straight over the corner but Seve did.
Of course, they all play that way these days. But Seve was the first to take the gamble and pull it off. Three times out of four it would work out - in his prime he was not as crooked as popularly believed - and on the fourth, well, he was a genius and would find a way to escape the trouble. He had the confidence and the sheer audacity to take on the course in a new way. The rest of us didn't have the skill, or the power, or the balls. Some of us, all three.
His short game was extraordinary. Unlike today, when the players have a lot more loft on their wedges and let that do all the work, Seve liked to chip with a straighter-faced pitching wedge. He would get the ball rolling on the ground and had terrific touch. He had a lot of imagination but it was one thing to see a shot, quite another to have the confidence of knowing you can actually play it successfully. Seve had all the shots. He looked just like someone who had learnt the game hitting that rusty old three-iron on a beach.
He was not a ruthless person but he was a ruthless winner. Winning meant everything to him. But when it came to the Ryder Cup, boy, were you glad he was on your side.
When Tony Jacklin became captain in 1983, he and Seve were a team within a team. They had this intense chemistry. Somehow Tony talked Seve into playing for the cause and Seve gave everything. He was so helpful to the youngsters and I remember him giving some of us a lesson on how to play out of the rough at PGA National. It was fourinch Bermuda rough, the like of which most of us had never seen. He spent half an hour showing us the shots he played but it was hopeless - like Ronnie O'Sullivan showing you how to play snooker left-handed. It's just not going to happen. But he was prepared to give his time and help to the team.
At the end, when it had been so close but we had lost again, Seve was just as disappointed as everyone.But he said we had achieved something great and that next time we would win. There wasn't a person in that locker room who didn't leave that night believing that, if we got on the team in two years' time at the Belfry, we would win. We did.
Over the years we became good friends. We were the same age, we came through the system at the same time, we played with and against each other and played on Ryder Cup teams together. Later he joined the BBC golf commentary team for a while and was as enthusiastic about that as everything else he did in golf. When you could persuade him to open up, at a lunch break or in a quiet corner, he was a magnificent storyteller, always in that slightly broken English.
I went to interview him last summer before the Open and it was an emotional experience of the highest order. He was desperate to come to St Andrews for the Champions' Dinner and play in the four-hole challenge.He wanted to see everyone again but his doctors were telling him he could not put himself though it. You could see in his eyes that if he was younger he would not be listening to them, but he knew he had to.
He was passionate about team golf and one of his legacies will be the competitions he championed: the Seve Trophy, between Britain and Ireland and the continent, and the Royal Trophy, which is a match between Asia and Europe. He really saw the Royal Trophy as a chance for the best Asians to play our best players, just like Samuel Ryder wanted to give our players a chance to play against the Americans.
We in Britain loved Seve so much that we can forget the impact he had across the whole of Europe, giving so many non-golf people an interest in the game. In a way he was our Arnold Palmer, who glamorised the game in America in the 1960s. But it does Seve Ballesteros a disservice to compare him to anybody. He was unique. He was Seve. Say no more.
Ken Brown played in five Ryder Cups and is now a commentator for the BBC.
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