Pied piper of Europe

SEVERIANO BALLESTEROS
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The Independent Online

When Sergio Garcia, apparently stymied behind a tree, played one of the shots of the season during his run-in with Tiger Woods for the US PGA Championship, Seve Ballesteros was sitting at home, shouting at the television screen. It was almost a mirror image.

When Sergio Garcia, apparently stymied behind a tree, played one of the shots of the season during his run-in with Tiger Woods for the US PGA Championship, Seve Ballesteros was sitting at home, shouting at the television screen. It was almost a mirror image.

It is possible that Garcia, who has everything, will go on to become one of the game's masters, surpassing the exploits of Ballesteros, but he can never be described as the next Seve.

What Arnold Palmer did for golf in America, Ballesteros did for Europe. To what can be a staid old game he brought a touch of glamour, imagination and a swashbuckling approach. He also had the killer instinct and there was something of the matador and the escape artist. People not only loved watching him, they wanted him to win. And win he did. And being self-taught, he did it his way.

Ballesteros was born in 1957 in a farm house overlooking the Bay of Santander in the village of Pedrena in northern Spain, a short walk from the local course. When he was seven he received his first golf club, the rusting head of an old three iron. He equipped the head with sticks which served as shafts. He used pebbles for golf balls and practised on the beach or in the fields. At eight he began caddieing at the Real Club de Golf de Pedrena, where his uncle, Ramon Sota, was the professional.

He earned 40 pesetas for the first bag he carried. In his first caddies' tournament he made 10 on the opening hole. At 11 he was runner up in the same event and a year later, when it became an 18-hole tournament, he won with a total of 79. "He had a love of golf you could almost touch," Manuel, one of his brothers, said. "You never saw him without a club."

In 1974 Ballesteros, at 16 years eight months and 21 days, became the youngest professional tournament player in the history of Spanish golf. With a $1,000 loan he took a bus to Santander and an overnight train through the mountains to Madrid.

His appearance in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1976 was sensational. He finished joint second with Jack Nicklaus behind Johnny Miller, and it was the style with which he finished that not only captured the public imagination but helped to establish his trademark. On the final hole in the final round his approach shot missed the fairway and came to rest in trampled yellow grass, 15 yards from where a path rode the crest of two bunkers and ran up to the green. There seemed only one shot available, pitch over the bunkers, although the chances of getting it close to the flag were zero. With a nine iron, Ballesteros bounced the ball on to the path and it navigated the mound, evaded the bunkers and rolled down on to the green to finish four feet from the hole.

The same year, at 19, he became the youngest player to finish top of the European Tour Order of Merit and for the next 13 years he was never out of the top 10. "When I was small," Ballesteros said, "I never thought about winning. I was never even thinking about the majors. I was just thinking about being a champion. I was thinking I'd like to be the best in the world."

His major breakthrough came in the Open at Royal Lytham in 1979, in a victory which was marked by spectacular recoveries, none more so than his shot from a car park at the 16th in the final round. The following year he dominated the Masters at Augusta National and, at 23, became the youngest wearer of the green blazer. He won it again in 1983 and seemed destined for a wardrobe full of jackets. He has not won at Augusta in 16 years.

He recaptured the Open in 1984 at St Andrews and won it for a third time when it returned to Lytham in 1988. Holding a one-stroke lead over Nick Price, Ballesteros missed the green at the last but his chip from 60 feet nearly went into the hole. The faces of the spectators tell their own story. Since then such moments have been few and far between.

At the age of 42 Ballesteros, who has been at war with the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, who has changed caddies and business managers almost as often as he has missed the fairway and a man who has amassed a fortune has disappeared from the rankings, a slide mirrored by the decline of Nick Faldo.

Ballesteros has won 72 titles worldwide but he has not won a major championship for 11 years. Indeed he has not won anything for four years.

"For all of us good swings come and good swings go," he said. "Everyone suffers a slump. Nicklaus did, Palmer, Watson, everyone. Why should I be the exception?" Because he's exceptional.

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