Profile: The Spanish avenger: Peter Corrigan charts the irresistible return to swashbuckling form of a golfing master, Severiano Ballesteros

Click to follow
The Independent Online
VENGEANCE has been a particularly potent motivation for Severiano Ballesteros during his 18 years as a professional golfer. Few sports offer as many opportunities for riches and glory, and few sportsmen have so thrillingly set about gathering them, but no incentive has narrowed his dark Spanish eyes so threateningly towards some distant target than what he has perceived to be an insult, an affront to his considerable dignity.

This week those eyes will be fixed upon the Toyota World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, an event he has dominated for much of his career but to which he was surprisingly not invited this year. The organisers were swift to recruit him when the American John Daly dropped out but the snub had already sunk deep and Ballesteros has hurled himself into a spell of sustained retaliatory excellence the like of which his many admirers had despaired of seeing again.

In the past three weeks he has finished second, third and first in successive tournaments, won pounds 250,000 and elevated his placing in the Order of Merit from ninth to second. His victory last week was denied its rightful impact because the event, the Mercedes German Masters, finished on Monday and the highlights could be glimpsed only after midnight on the more obscure satellite channel.

One of the year's most dramatic finishes saw Ballesteros catch two major title holders, Ernie Els and Jose Maria Olazabal, in the final round and then slay them on the first play-off hole with a brilliant shot across a lake to within three feet of the pin. It was a stroke from a repertoire that once ruled the world but which had been looking decidedly threadbare over the past few years. If Ballesteros's peevishness has enough propulsion left, there will be more to come this week and there is no doubt who will attract the largest galleries as the 16 contenders for the Match Play title weave their way through the Burma Road course at Wentworth. But, whatever his form and with or without his dander up, Ballesteros is still a beguiling sight to the aficionado and he would have been the main attraction anyway. He had lost form but not admirers and after 18 consecutive years in the tournament - his record of five victories is matched only by Gary Player - the idea of excluding him was ridiculous. Sadly, it fits the pattern of a calendar that appears too crowded and complicated for its own good, a complaint Ballesteros has aired for years.

For instance, the first players in the world ratings, Nick Price and Greg Norman, refused invitations to contest Wentworth's world title although they have been representing their countries at the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews. But Ballesteros is taking his first week off for six weeks and declined to be in the Spanish team, Nick Faldo decided not to play for England and Ian Woosnam is not in the Welsh team because the Welsh team was not invited. Both events are organised by the International Management Group whose many strengths do not appear to include the management of internationals.

Ballesteros is not one of IMG's many golfing clients and he muttered darkly about the agency's growing influence on the European Tour, an influence that might have been greater if the Spaniard had joined the star-studded stable in his early years. To IMG this remains a sore point. He was enthusiastically recommended to them as a future star while he was teenager. They rejected him. It was a dismissal he later heard about and has had the satisfaction on several occasions since of returning the compliment.

He is managed now by the American Joe Collet while his three older brothers, Baldomero, Manuel and Vicente, assist him in his various promotional companies. All three are professional golfers themselves, as was their father, Baldomero Snr, and, more famously, his mother's brother Ramon Sota who was Spain's best player in his day. Golf, however, hadn't brought riches to the family who lived simply in a farmhouse overlooking the fishing village of Pedrena in northern Spain where Seve was caddying for a few pesetas by the time he was eight.

At 16 he became the youngest professional in Spain and was on the European circuit by the time he was 17. His was not a gentle introduction. In common with many great players, his temper was short and his club-throwing long. But his case was a little more serious because he would object to any shot that didn't go down the hole, no matter how far away he was. Since his style was to attack every shot without consideration for a safer option his wildness brought many opportunities for dissent.

One senior British pro recalls the young Seve with the words 'He was like John Daly, without the control'. He was as hard on his caddie as he was on himself and he exhausted the patience of several, including all three brothers - even Manuel who gave up his own promising playing career to support Seve's. Manuel brought him to Britain for the first time in 1975 to play in the PGA event at the Royal St George's course, Sandwich. Seve was 18 and had never seen a course like it. He missed the cut and still dislikes it. When, a year later, he played in the Open at Birkdale, Ballesteros was still unknown and such was the raw state of his English that Manuel had to translate at the press conferences.

His anonymity had not been difficult to preserve. All attention was on the Americans, particularly Johnny Miller. Only one Briton had won in the previous 25 years - Tony Jacklin in 1969 - and no continental had been Open champion since Arnaud Massy in 1907. The 19- year-old Ballesteros proceeded to shock golf by leading the tournament for three days with a swashbuckling style that defied Birkdale's many perils. At the start of the fourth round he was two shots ahead of Miller. At the end he was six shots behind, joint second with Jack Nicklaus, after heaving his drives all over the dunes.

Miller admitted that had Seve played safe and used an iron off the tee he would have won and become the youngest winner of the Open since Tom Morris a century earlier. In fact, Miller broke tradition by holing out first at the 18th and allowing his young opponent the honour of the final putt and the crowd's ovation that turned out to be rapturous. Ballesteros has been an Anglophile ever since.

Ovations from Spain arrived much later. Indeed, when he won the US Masters in 1980, his second major title, it wasn't even mentioned on Spanish radio. After he won his second Masters title in 1983, however, he returned to a hero's welcome and he entertained a crowd of 10,000 at Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium with some trick shots that included walking 200 yards from the towering stands and landing the ball on the pitch.

That day the Mayor of Madrid announced that the city was building two public courses in honour of Ballesteros. Golf in Spain has grown steadily since and Seve has guaranteed that it will have another lift in 1997 when the Ryder Cup is played at Valderrama. The biennial match owes its recent resurgence to the fact that the British team was broadened to include the rest of Europe in 1979 and Ballesteros has been prime among the advantages of that move. The choice of Spain as the first home venue outside Britain is a tribute to him but, unfortunately, he wanted his own Novo Sancti Petri chosen and was furious when it wasn't.

He is mellower these days. His marriage to Carmen, daughter of one of Spain's wealthiest men, and the arrival of his three children has brought a measure of tranquilo. He is even nice to his caddie, a personable young Yorkshireman called Billy Foster. In Germany on Monday Seve needed a birdie on the last for the day's best round for which there was a prize of a cashmere jacket. 'I'll win this for you, Billy,' he said. And he did.

It hasn't been pleasant to watch him suffer the faltering form of the past few years. For a man who has won five majors and more than 50 Tour titles, it is insufferable not to be a contender. Last year was the first since 1976 in which he didn't win a Tour event. Worse than that, he suffered from his back trouble and trudged home early after missing cut after cut. It was natural to fear that, at 37, he was past it.

Suddenly, he is powered by the old passion again and we know why. A friend of his was once quoted in Golf Digest: 'All Seve's professional life he has been inspired to great deeds by his craving to stick it to someone. Go through his record and you can match his triumphs to his mood.'

This week he will attempt to stick it to the Match Play organisers. Next week? Well, he's always nurtured the feeling that the Yanks were dismissive of him in his early days out there. And there was that time when he was disqualified from the US Open for mixing up his tee-time and they accused him of arrogance. Honour won't really be satisfied until he has taken that most precious of their titles away from them.

Now that Faldo is going to the States for a little extra action, Ballesteros must soon follow if his rediscovered form shows further signs of permanence. Once there, who knows what old scores he will settle. Seve's revenge could be sweet for everyone.

Comments