Walk away, Seve: Twilight of a major legend

The harrowing decline of Seve Ballesteros will gain in pathos today when his teenage son caddies for him at Hoylake
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The Independent Online

In the burnt, reclaimed linksland of Open golf at Hoylake you could draw up a whole catalogue of hurt without finding an easy category for Seve Ballesteros.

Some of the dislocation of the spirit could scarcely be more petty (did Tiger Woods really nursed an ageing slight by Nick Faldo through the pain that recently engulfed him when he lost his beloved father, Earl?). Some of it goes to the heart and the bones of a man like Darren Clarke, the cigar-chomping barnstormer for whom the game has for some time been a therapeutic, if fleeting, release from the tragedy of his wife's illness.

But, then, where indeed do we put Seve Ballesteros' return after four years to the tournament he once illuminated like some fabulous shooting star?

For some, when they strip down the fine sentiment of Ballesteros' decision to show his 16-year-old son, Baldomero - a promising golfer who, for the next two days, will carry a bag that once seemed to house a bottomless resource of fantasy - the links game from within the ropes, it is no more than another act of masochism.

It is a desperate man once more ransacking his past, squeezing dry his last hopes and marching bleakly towards his 50th birthday with a great and sometimes apparently terrible weight of disappointment.

Their counsel could not be more succinct. Leave it, Seve, they say. Walk away. Put an end to the torment. Why place your son at the risk of seeing, close up, fresh public humiliation which has grown mountainous down the decade or more since you discovered, for one reason or another, including a chronically arthritic back, you could not play the game any more, not even in the basic, technical way that is the starting point for all serious competitors.

Yet once again Ballesteros moves hauntingly beyond such advice. He seeks to make a farewell that is not overwhelmed by poignancy. Maybe he wants to show that somewhere out there is a flash or two of unspent brilliance, a chip shot that again defies belief, perhaps a surge of the blood and instinct that might conjure a last fusillade of glory.

Has sport ever known such a forlorn pursuit of lost accomplishment? There have been times when you simply could not put aside serious doubts. A champion fighter stumbles and it is over, in the time it takes to count to 10. A jockey loses his nerve, all of a sudden. A footballer loses his legs. But Ballesteros has had the long farewell - as a form of purgatory.

Already this week there has been at least one painful glimpse of how it might go wrong here over the next two days. His opening drive on Tuesday's practice round was hooked horribly. The ball bounced against the scoreboard and there were a thousand repressed groans. Elsewhere on the course someone like Phil Mickelson, his game on fire, was exploring every nuance of the scorched greens - while Ballesteros rummaged for a remnant or two of mere proficiency.

The mishap reawakened some of the nightmares of the lost years. One of them came on the tee of the second hole at Augusta a few years ago. He sent his drive looping into the air impotently. His shoulders slumped as he peered into the middle distance. His marriage was crumbling then, and his wife Carmen, stood under the bows of a pine tree, stared at the ground, and then shuddered. She had the jeers of rednecks in her ears. One of them cried, raucously, "Did this guy ever know how to play golf?'

One mercy was the possibility that Ballesteros did not hear as he marched down the fairway. At that moment he seemed beyond insult.

You remember the times when you could see how desperately he was hanging on to the last of his game. He played Tom Lehman in Ryder Cup singles in Rochester, New York, and it was a bit like watching a climber clinging to a precipice. He couldn't hit a fairway, but he kept scrambling to parity, a sublime recovery here, a heart-stopping putt there. But he could sustain it for only so long. Lehman got the point and Ballesteros another demoralising hint that the sun was going down.

Here this week some believe that Ballesteros should be protected from himself. But how do you tell one of the greatest champions of all time that he is inviting his son to the sporting equivalent of a car crash?

If you had one gift to bestow on the great sportsman it would be that he survives the next two days with a degree of rescued honour, that the weakness of his game is not exposed too cruelly. And if you had another it would surely be to take young Baldomero on a short journey along the north-west coast to Royal Lytham and the time, two years before his own birth, when his father reclaimed so much of the best of his talent.

When you see enough sport of the highest class, inevitably you accumulate days you know you will never forget. It might be Ali winning a fight, Piggott the Derby or a run by George Best. Such a day came at Royal Lytham in 1988, when Ballesteros won his last major. He wore a blue sweater, which provoked an inevitable banner headline: "Rhapsody in Blue".

The tournament spilt into Monday because of a rain-lashed weekend, and instead of the normal pairs, three contenders were locked in the final group. The technically superb Nick Price led Ballesteros and Faldo by two shots at the start of the round. Faldo lost early ground, but Price played flawless golf on his way to a 69. In a thousand other circumstances Price would have won, but Ballesteros was unbeatable and you knew this for sure on the par-four, 16th hole.

He had won his first Open, and major, at Lytham as a 22-year-old nine years earlier, and since then had won another Open, at St Andrews in 1984, and two US Masters. It was at the 16th that Ballesteros had not only set up his first major victory but created a legend of quite mystical proportions. He sent his drive rocketing into a car park, then from a free drop, put himself into position to hole a long putt. It was one of the greatest recoveries big-time golf had ever seen and it was that promise of something remarkable, something beyond the scope of even the most gifted rivals, that gave Ballesteros his extraordinary aura. Watching him march over the brow of a fairway was to be alert to almost any possibility. When he struck the ball, alchemy was in the air.

So it was nine years after that first statement of uncharted brilliance. As Price played his fine, resolute game, Ballesteros was required regularly to delve beyond normal boundaries. He did it most exquisitely at the 16th hole which had come to define the wild range of his game. Price looked at the sky and shrugged his shoulders. Ballesteros hit a one-iron off the tee, then floated in an approach shot so perfect that for a few seconds it suspended belief. Then a great roar rolled along the Lancashire coast. The ball landed three inches from the pin.

It was the stroke of a master, the confirming evidence that on this day the man in the blue sweater, repeatedly punching the air with overpowering, self-belief, was simply unbeatable. He shot a 65. He said that he could achieve anything on a golf course.

It would be good to show Baldomero all of that. It might make some kind of sense of the ordeal his father now faces these next two days - one that some feel could easily engulf the boy.

Perhaps the fears have been overstated; maybe Ian Poulter, who will tee off with Ballesteros this morning, has got it right when he declares that few men on earth have less reason to apologise for their presence on a golf course. "Seve has every right to play in whatever tournament he wants," said the young Englishman. "I grew up watching him. I'll be focusing on my own game, but it will be great to play in front of a Seve gallery. He still has an amazing short game."

Maybe Ballesteros' greatest gift to this Open is a reminder to younger men - and particularly someone like the superbly gifted Ernie Els, who is fighting to win back the certainties that made him such a fierce challenger to the dominance of Woods a few years ago - that you never truly know when the best of yourself is about to depart.

When Ballesteros first entered the crisis that has gone on for so long, and eaten at the very basics of his life, he was asked if he had given any thought to a break from the game - a stepping back from the front line for a while - Walter Hagen's famous order to smell the flowers.

It was a kind, albeit carefully phrased question, but it might have been a casually thrown bomb. Ballesteros' eyes blazed. "What are you saying?" he asked. "Are you saying that I can no longer play golf?"

Relentlessly, the years have supplied their own answer. Now, so long after the question seemed to have slipped into a sad irrelevance, he raises it again. He walks out with his young son in an attempt to capture at least a little of the past. Soon enough the drama will be overtaken by other deeds. But then one thing is certain in the soul-wrenching case of Seve Ballesteros. It is that whatever happens here, the hurt will go on.