Calm at last

“I felt very alone. I felt a long way from home and told myself, ‘Seve, it’s not worth it. It’s time’.” Accepting his career was over was the three-time Open champion, Severiano Ballesteros’ sternest test, but at last he feels relief. By Donald Mcrae.

Earlier this year, on a dark and clammy night in the middle of May, Severiano Ballesteros sat alone on the edge of a bed. He looked around the room of another anonymously swanky hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, and almost buckled. The moment he had been trying to deny so long, the moment when he knew the end had finally come, engulfed him.

Like the great old fighters he loves, especially Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson when the worst beatings had drained them of their unforgettable genius as well as everything else that had once made them feel most alive, Ballesteros faced a terrible emptiness.

“I felt very alone,” he remembers, “and I could hear my voice in my head: ‘Seve, what the hell are you doing here? What are you doing to yourself?’ I’d heard these questions a long time, because for the last two years I was virtually retired from serious golf.

“But inside I was not accepting it. There was still confusion in me. But I changed that night. There had been too much stress, too much effort, for too many years. I felt a long way from home and I had to say: ‘Seve, it’s not worth it. It’s time’.”

He had turned 50 six weeks earlier and the completion of his sporting demise was brutal. Just before his birthday he shot 86 and 80 at the Masters and announced his intention to restrict himself to the Champions Tour — where veterans can still rake in millions.

His debut was in that 54-hole Alabama tournament. After he shot 78 and 81 in his opening two rounds there was desolation more than embarrassment. He knew that this was how it ended for Robinson, the greatest of all boxers, when he lost at the age of 44 to the journeyman Joey Archer. And emotionally, if not in terms of the physical ruin he suffered, he felt like Ali after he was battered in his last fight by the mediocre Trevor Berbick.

Ballesteros is a sporting colossus to be compared to Robinson and Ali, to Pele and Jack Nicklaus. His natural brilliance, and the impact he had on his sport, belongs in such elevated company. But there he sat, on his hotel bed, facing the end, in a tournament about to be won by Brad Bryant, aged 52, whose lone victory on the PGA Tour had come in the 1995 Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic.

A few feet away from Ballesteros now, on a sunny day in Madrid, after an hour in which he has been as engaging as he is expansive, there is a flash of his cussed competitiveness. His face darkens when asked if finishing last in Alabama had sealed his decision to retire completely.

“I didn’t finish last,” he bristles before sighing gracefully. “It doesn’t matter. I was at the back.” If the record books confirm that Ballesteros shared last place with Lee Trevino, aged 67, it is more uplifting to note that he shot his best round of the week with a closing 73. Fittingly, he birdied the 18th hole.

Yet he flew back to Spain in silence and the rumours grew. After a close friend was killed in a car accident there was cruel gossip that Ballesteros had attempted suicide. He dismisses “the lies and ugly fantasy” but acknowledges that stress took its toll.

“You can see now,” he grins, “that I feel fantastic. I’m not too bad for an old guy! But before, health-wise, it was not as good. I was in hospital 16 hours. They were checking the (irregular) beating of my heart but since then nothing has happened. I feel fine. I think the heartbeat was a result of that trip to Alabama and making the decision to retire, of saying this is it. It was a big stress.”

Ballesteros announced his retirement in the week of the Open at Carnoustie. His dignified press conference allowed a groundswell of British affection to re-emerge in detailed eulogies for his three Open and two Masters victories. He was even more rightly hailed for the way in which he almost single-handedly transformed golf in Europe, both as an outrageously gifted individual and as the most fiercely competitive of all Ryder Cup players.

“I could have retired in Spain but that would have been wrong. The Spanish never appreciated me like the British. I so valued the love the British public showed me that it was respectful to retire in Great Britain. And Carnoustie was perfect because that’s where I played my first Open in 1978. It was the best place to say bye-bye.”

In his new autobiography one of his main themes is that, “in Britain, there was always a great connection between me and the gallery. It was a very good chemistry because I was never flat in my face. The British liked that. My face showed every emotion — from happiness to anger. I also played a different way to everyone else on tour. I could be erratic and, like a weekend golfer, hit it into the car park.”

Ballesteros holds his head in mock anguish. But he played recovery shots of such wild majesty that even the Americans, who initially sneered at him as “a parking-lot champion”, succumbed.

“The British always saw this. I would hit a shot that maybe they recognised from their own game. But they loved it when I got out of trouble with what Peter Alliss called miracle shots.”

As he relives the way in which he learned to play such crazily inventive golf, Ballesteros becomes almost boyish in his delight. “My brother says I played my most imaginative golf between 13 and 17 and maybe he’s right. I had to. We were poor and I could not afford any clubs. So when I found the head that had broken off a club I stuck it on to a piece of wood which I tore off a tree. I then put the wood in water to make it solid overnight.

“I did this many times because the shaft kept breaking. And because there were no balls available I would hit pebbles on the beach. I taught myself a different game. And because I was born next to a golf course there were times when I would go on to it at night and play in the dark.

“I learned my feel for the game and how to play unusual shots. Today it is not really possible because the equipment even ordinary players use is so good that everything is geared to hitting the ball in a straight line. It is very hard to manoeuvre the ball today.

“I think that takes away from the player who has the instinct to play a more individual game.

“That’s why there is no point comparing Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods.

“The equipment and conditions have changed too much. I would agree Tiger is on his way to being called the best ever but Jack never gave away a tournament. I saw Tiger blow a tournament in Dubai. But of course he is a great player and by far the best today.”

If he is as keen to talk about boxers as golfers it is perhaps unsurprising that his own favourite player is a pugnacious little man whose game was built more on gritty fight than pure talent. “Gary Player became the golfer I admired most from 1972 when I got to caddie at a pro-am in Spain. He grabbed my attention because, every day, he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. He worked so hard.

“People forget I had the same work ethic. It’s important you have the natural talent but your dedication matters even more. That was a reason why my game went. I hurt my back when I was boxing a friend of mine in 1977 and it was never the same after that. But I made it worse by practising so hard year after year. So in the end I couldn’t play like I’d once done — because it was physically impossible.”

Ballesteros shrugs when asked if he has played much, socially, since his retirement. “I play with my children. I’m not playing so well because I don’t practise any more. But the big difference now is that when I don’t win a hole I feel OK.

“There is no pressure. And that’s good because it reminds me that what happened to me on the golf course was not so bad. Real trouble is when you are ill or unemployed — not because you don’t play golf so good any more.”

The bruised old master leans back in his chair and smiles in relief. “That’s why I would not change a single thing. If you do that you can change the whole story. And when I look at the whole story I feel very proud of myself.

“I was part of the growth of golf in Europe and I’m very happy to have done that. I’m happy with all the good things I did myself and, also, I accept my mistakes. I feel calm now. I feel content. I am ready to get on with the rest of my life.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007