When the game was touched by greatness

The Ryder Cup was a special stage for Ballesteros. He loved to beat Americans and if beating one was good, how much better was beating a whole team of them?-AP ?

Seve Ballesteros, who recently announced his retirement, was more than simply a great golfer. He was the catalyst for a surge in popularity for the game and a player who inspired fellow pros and weekend hackers alike, but it was his ability to make the impossible possible that will last longest in the memory. David Davies recalls some of the Spaniard’s greatest moments.

The golfer every other golfer wanted to be has retired. Severiano Ballesteros will compete no longer and it seems safe to say that we will not see his like again. The mixture of unbounded brilliance and unsurpassed charisma made the Spaniard unique and enabled him to transform the British and European games.

He brought an urgency and intensity to everything he touched, an infectious enthusiasm for the game, an exuberance in the playing of it and an ability to inspire not just his fellow professionals but even the hardened hacks who were fortunate enough to be around at the time he was pursuing his wonderful career. In another time he would have had to be a pirate, a slashing, dashing, burning, wenching pirate, carrying off the loot and the crinolined crumpet; Seve o’ the Spanish Main.

Statistics do not often tell the tale, but in the 20 years of his pomp, between 1976 and 1996, the European tour flourished as never before, sponsors flocking to be associated with the flair and excitement he brought to the game. In 1976 Ballesteros topped the Order of Merit, winning GBP39,509. In 1996 Colin Montgomerie led with GBP1,034,752 and a new generation of stars had been created who regularly turned over the Americans in the Ryder Cup.

Nick Faldo, in so many ways the polar opposite of Ballesteros, nevertheless appreciated the man’s gifts and tells a story that captures perfectly the spirit of the Spaniard that transformed that contest. In 1983, Europe lost by one point to a rather fortunate US side and were sitting glumly with chins on chests in the locker room when suddenly Ballesteros burst in. “Why you all sit there like that?” he demanded. “We did not lose, this was a great victory. And anyway, you’ll see — next time we beat them.”

So it came to pass. Since Ballesteros spoke, or more precisely shouted, those words, Europe have won seven of the 11 matches played, halved one and lost only three. Better than that, in a contest often decided by a single point, Europe have scored 167 points to 137 by the Americans. And all of them, arguably, stemmed from the undeleted words uttered almost a quarter of a century ago.

The Ryder Cup was a special stage for Ballesteros. He loved to beat Americans and if beating one was good, how much better was beating a whole team of them? Furthermore, his presence in the team room ensured that everyone else within it felt the same way. It was not just his fervour they respected, but his achievements, which in partnership with Jose Maria Olazabal were legendary — even among his peers.

The two gelled right from the moment in 1987 when Olazabal made his debut at Muirfield Village. Ballesteros, with two putts to win from 6ft — but six slippery feet above the hole — was told by his young partner, “Just touch it, no more.” But Ballesteros touched it a little too much and it ran the same distance past the hole. Now the debutant had to hole for the point and when he did, Ballesteros gathered him into his arms. The bond had been formed.

It was Ballesteros, of course, who played arguably the greatest shot the Ryder Cup has ever seen (unarguably, as far as your correspondent is concerned). At the 18th in a singles match against Fuzzy Zoeller in 1983, Ballesteros hit a poor drive into thick rough. He could only advance it into the face of a bunker some 240 yards from the green. Now, surely, he had to wedge the ball out and accept being on the green in four. Ballesteros grabbed a three wood, marched into the sand, took a glimpse at the distant green and smashed the ball on to the fringe. It was impossible, it could not be done, but such concepts did not then exist in the mind of Seve Ballesteros.

When, eventually, Seve became Europe’s captain, he was so desperate to beat the Americans that he became known as Captain Frantic as he whizzed to all corners of the course on a buggy that seemed to have been supercharged by Ferrari. Mostly his presence was inspirational, occasionally not. In the singles, Thomas Bjorn lost the first two holes to Justin Leonard and Ballesteros buggied over to the third tee. “Relax, relax,” he said to the Dane who, very obviously tight and tense, snapped back: “I am relax, I am relax.” Eventually he was sufficiently “relax” to halve the match.

Ballesteros has always been an emotional man. He has cried on the course in defeat, in losing the play-off for the Masters in 1987, and in victory, after Europe’s extraordinary win in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill when they turned around a two-point deficit before the singles. He sought out Faldo, one of the principal architects of that triumph, and, tears streaming down his face, told him: “You are a great champion.”

Ballesteros’s success in transforming the Ryder Cup was the foundation for today’s lucrative and thriving European tour.

Ballesteros’s loathing of the United States stemmed from the less-than-effusive welcome he got when he went to play on their tour. While it has to be said that it was quite easy to slight Ballesteros, it is also true that he was resented in the US.

His refusal even to consider that anyone could beat him led to a reputation for arrogance, even though he was only treading a path already well trampled by the best Americans. Hale Irwin intensified his detestation of things American when, after the first of the Spaniard’s three Open Championship wins, Irwin called him “a car park champion”.

This was a reference to a tee shot at the 16th at Royal Lytham St. Annes that finished in a temporary car park but was only a few yards off the line Ballesteros was aiming for. From there he floated a wedge to about 10ft and holed the birdie putt.

Irwin was disgusted, but so was Ballesteros that his triumph had been labelled, by insinuation, fortunate. For years after that, every time he had a great round and came to tell us about it, he would smile and say: “Yes, I was very lucky out there.”

He wasn’t, of course. Some of the things he did amounted to genius and were recognised as such by the players he competed against. There was the time at Augusta when, playing the short 4th, Ballesteros had missed the green badly. As a result he had to pitch over the length of a bunker to a narrow, severely sloping promontory on which the pin was located. Any other player in that Masters field would have been delighted to get the ball within 30ft and then pray not to three putt. Ballesteros hit a high floater that, instead of running and running when it landed, fizzed to a halt two feet from the hole.

It was another example of Ballesteros achieving the impossible, although Raymond Floyd, playing with him that day, said: “Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that was lucky. He does it too often for it to be that.”

Another major champion, Tom Kite, who played a solidly straightforward game, mainly free from mistakes, admired the Spaniard as only a man incapable of the Ballesteros brand of golf can. “He plays shots,” Kite said, “that we don’t even dream about.”

He played one at the Swiss Open at Crans-sur-Sierre that was so far away from the possible that his caddie, Billy Foster, at first did not realise what was being proposed. When he did, Foster pleaded with him to abandon any such idea. Ballesteros was in the trees again at the 72nd hole. Progress towards the green was seemingly blocked by a 10ft wall and the overhanging branches of some pines. Even chipping out sideways was fraught.

But Seve thought he glimpsed daylight between the pines and, although he was only 6ft from the wall, thought he could clear it. Foster, and about 50 spectators, knew that he couldn’t. He did, of course, and the initial, stunned silence said it all. The ball flashed between the trees, over the swimming pool the wall was guarding and out on to the fairway just short of the green. Then Ballesteros chipped in. It was a golfing miracle, a birdie conjured from a place offering a six to mere mortals. There is a plaque there now and they have had to fence it off to stop people trying to replicate the shot. As if they could.

Following Ballesteros was a rewarding adventure. People who would not cross the road to watch Faldo would climb barbed wire fences to see Seve. Other pros would go to watch him, an unheard of thing in golf. There was always something going on and part of the reason for this was that he never stopped trying. Dave Musgrove, one of his caddies, once said that Ballesteros was the only player he had ever worked for who, if he required six birdies over the last six holes to win the tournament, knew he would get them.

Part of the reason he never stopped trying was appearance money. He commanded big fees for turning up but, proud Spaniard that he was, he always wanted to justify it by winning the event. “I have used a lot of energy,” he once said, “to make the cut, to go on and win. If I had my time again I don’t think I would do everything the same way.”

He was not referring only to expending mental reserves on relatively minor events but also to not having looked after his body as he should have. He suffered back problems from early in his career and never sorted them out. He tried all sorts of ‘cures’, once in Thailand stripping off his shirt to show us great circular weals that had been left on his back by heated glass. It looked appalling; its effectiveness was zero.

The problems slowly, but sadly very surely, crippled his golf. Watching him going through the bag hitting balls at Augusta in the early 1990s, he was still fantastic from the wedge down to about the five-iron. But after that, when the ball required a definite hit rather than being swept away, his back began to let him down. He couldn’t make the same fluid turn he had in his youth or employ the power that made him one of the longest hitters in world golf.

It led to compromises, never good, and adjustments to the compromises, even worse. Inevitably Ballesteros became first of all just an ordinary golfer and then, surprisingly quickly, a rank bad one.

Shorn of his power, the glory faded although, unfortunately, not the desire. He continued to try to compete and those of us who had been captivated down the years now pleaded, silently, for him to stop. It was embarrassing.

But perhaps no golfer has ever gone less gently into that good night. He managed to convince himself that a resurrection was possible, that at age 40, or 45 or 48, he could hardly be finished. He employed teacher after teacher but, stubbornly, listened to none of them: Seve knew what had made him great, knew he could do it all again.

Now, at 50, the bogeys and double bogeys that replaced the eagles and birdies have finally worn down even his raging ambition. He looks a shadow of the incredibly handsome, physically imposing figure he was when he stood on the 18th green at St. Andrews in 1988, winner of the Open at the home of golf and master of all he surveyed.

Now Seve Ballesteros is gone from the golf course, leaving us with only memories. But no man has created more; golf was touched by greatness during his time.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007