'Seve made you love him. Made you wish you could be him'

Ballesteros was a man of the people who became the People's Champion. Paul Mahoney recalls the times he spent in the company of the Spanish golfer
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The Independent Online

The lift door opened and Seve Ballesteros stepped out in the hotel lobby.

Time stood still. Everyone stopped to stare. It felt like there was a blindingly beautiful glow around him. An aura. Bloody hell, there was sex appeal. It was like the moment John Travolta opens the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. Seve’s dazzling white teeth gleamed like neon to light up the caramel-coloured skin of his face - and his deep-set brown eyes sparkled. Every time he smiled, it was as if a flash bulb had just exploded in his mouth.

We met in a hotel in Tenerife before heading to a course he had recently designed. That once thick mop of coal black hair was now tinted by nature’s grey highlights and his face was stretched and baked from hours spent thrashing balls in the sunshine. Yet in 2006, aged 49, he was still achingly handsome. Still oozing with that matinee idol look that now sent middle-aged housewives into a dizzy swoon and made golf dads giddy. That look that back in his Eighties pomp made teenage girls scream and tear after him. He was Elvis – in slacks with his blue Slazenger Sunday sweater. Now he was more George Clooney. He made you love him. Made you wish you could be him.

There was no entourage in Tenerife, no bodyguards ushering him to the door. Seve held court for 15 minutes until everyone who wanted a piece of him went back to their lives happy with a snapped photo, or a handshake, or his signature on a cap or paper napkin. Here was the perfect example that if celebrities and sporting heroes engage their public, the public will love and respect them back. Seve was the People’s Champion.

Meeting your heroes should never be recommended. How can they possibly ever live up to the expectations we mortals have of them as gods in the sporting arena? Better to worship from afar and imagine them as perfect. But there are exceptions in golf. America still has Arnold Palmer. Europe had Seve.

The last time I visited Seve at his home village of Pedrena (population 1,500), perched on the peninsula between Bilbao and Santander, was in 2002. He was in his usual charming mood but there was also sadness about him. He hadn’t won since the Spanish Open in 1995 and he was contemplating the inevitable retirement. He said he was tired of struggling with his ailing back, tired of struggling to make cuts on tour, tired even of being Seve. He was worried that he could no longer be the Seve that he wanted to be and that people longed for. It is the cruel fate that awaits all sporting gods. They must die twice. Seve was coming to terms with the passing of his game. Why did he keep trying to make comebacks? “The public motivate me,” he admitted fighting back his emotions. “My fans keep me alive. Golf is my life. What can I do? Go home and watch TV? There is always tomorrow. I will never give in.”

We had lunch at the golf club. The clubhouse manager had known Seve all his life. “I have watched him grow up,” he said. “He is much the same now as he ever was.” Seve remained proud of his roots. He never forgot where he came from. The riches that came with his success meant he was able to live in the Big House on the Hill. But he left his ego on tour. Many of his childhood friends still live and work in the Pedrena area as fishermen, farmers, factory workers and caddies. “I still socialise with everyone, eat in the restaurants, go the bars, talk about golf and football,” Seve said. “They don’t see me as higher than them. They treat me like they always have. This is my home. This is where I was born, the beach where I used to practise. All my friends are here. People are not jealous. Okay, I have the big house but I live modestly. I don’t have a Ferrari or a jet.”

Seve decided he wanted to give the photographer and I the royal tour. He persuaded a friend to be our taxi. We all dived into a rusty, dirty grey Peugeot and buzzed around the tumbleweed village. Seve showed us the rundown cottage where he was brought up. “The cows lived in a shed on the first floor and heated the rooms upstairs.” He showed us where he used to climb over the fence to play golf in the twilight hours when he was a caddie and therefore not allowed to play in the day. He took us the beach where his legend began armed with just a 3-iron and an imagination that knew no boundaries. His pal double-parked the Peugeot almost on the beach. A police patrol car spotted us and began to approach. Seve leapt out of the passenger seat and waved at them. They waved back. Crisis over. Seve picked up a twig and tied a paper handkerchief around it to make a flag in the sand just the way he used to when he was a child. It was a privilege to be around him. He made it easy.

The first time I met Seve at Pedrena was in the late 1990s. He recognised two elderly ladies on the first tee and went over to greet them. He then turned to me and said: “Let’s play nine holes?” Yes! And, good god, no! He rustled up a half-set of clubs and off we went, my heart pumping like a steam hammer. He kept stopping to offer tips. Like how to play flop shots out of the rough. With a 3-iron. How to execute the perfect splash shot from a bunker. With a 3-iron. He mocked my hopelessness and cheered when I actually made contact with one ball. I marvelled at his madness and genius.

Nobody, of course, is perfect and Seve, on a bad day, could be as feisty and as confrontational as anyone after a stressful day at the office. He bit the head off many a reporter that threw him a daft question at the wrong time. But he never bore grudges. He was charming company, polite, funny, joyful, genuinely pleased to stop and chat, and the king of cool. And his spirit lives on. Phil Mickelson unwittingly spoke for every player, sports fan, and housewife at the Masters last month. "I looked up to Seve, loved the way he played and was drawn in by his charisma. And he didn't let me down."