By In Golf, RIP

Seve Ballesteros

There’s a moment at the 1997 Ryder Cup that I think of now. That Ryder Cup was at the Valderrama Golf Club, in Sotogrande, along the Alboran Sea, almost in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar. The captain of the European team was Seve Ballesteros, and even with all the beautiful scenes there in and around Sotogrande, it was Seve who was the overpowering presence. He was everywhere.

He had a golf cart, of course, and it seemed to be souped up, and he drove fast from hole to hole, from group to group, and he cheered on his team, coaxed them, pushed them, challenged them. This was Ballesteros in full. There has never been a more dashing presence in golf. The young Seve, like the young Arnold Palmer or the emerging Tiger Woods, well, these guys seemed more action hero than golfer. Severiano Ballesteros even had the action hero name to go with it.*

*Of course, they called him “El Matador.” What other image even came close?

He certainly had the action hero game. Ballesteros would drive the ball into the trees, into the rough, into the gallery, behind buildings, into the villains’ laire. Then he would invent some crazy shot — some hooking, slicing, rolling, skipping, dancing shot — that avoided that tree and bounced over that trap and turned left at Albuquerque and right at Cucamonga and shot out the lights and avoided tripping the alarm and skidded to a stop somewhere near the green. He would then hit some ridiculously soft chip shot that would roll right up to the hole. And if the ball didn’t go in, Seve would grimace, because the way he saw it, he deserved the birdie. The birdie was his birthright.

In those early years, the ball seemed to go in all the time for Seve. He made so many birdies. He told us that he had learned the game in the sand — hitting three-irons on Spanish beaches when he was supposed to be at school. Maybe that was true, maybe it was an exaggeration, but he was a prodigy. He won the Dutch Open when he was 19, and he led the British Open after three rounds that same year. He led the European Order of Merit at 19 and again at 20 and once more at 21. He won the British Open at 22, and won the Masters four days after his 23rd birthday. The Masters victory was a golfing crescendo. He was, at the time, the youngest golfer to win the Masters — he was also the first European.

On top of that, he was the most exciting player to come along since Palmer had inspired armies. His victories captivated people throughout Europe, but especially in Spain — where his future Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal was learning the game. You could not watch Seve Ballesteros play golf then and not think: I would love to do that.

Augusta was the perfect stage for Seve. There was no rough anywhere on the course, which meant that golfers with imagination could hit the ball just about anywhere and find their way back to the green. And the greens were microwave-fast, which meant that winning took the putting touch of an engraver. Those were two things Seve had in bulk — imagination and touch. He won the Masters again in 1983, and almost won in 1985 and 1987. It is telling that in the years between, he missed the Masters cut twice. Well, he was an all-or-nothing golfer. He either sawed the woman in half or, yes, it was kind of messy. That was part of what made him so mesmerizing.

He won the British Open three times — there too, on those bumpy and unpredictable links courses and in the wind, his beautiful creativity and ingenuity were rewarded and celebrated. He was never much of a factor at the U.S. Open. He did finish in the Top 5 three times, because he was too talented not too, but the tight fairways and punishing rough generally did not suit his free nature. The U.S. Open was too much like real life. With Ballesteros, golf was about escape and about making art. He wanted to create something unforgettable. He did not like pars. I remember once talking to him about those solid pars — drive to the middle of the fairway, hit it on the green, knock the first putt close, knock the second putt in — that we were told again and again led to winning golf. “Boring,” he said.

The magic left Seve Ballesteros when he was in his early 30s. That was inevitable, I suppose. His game was high-stakes poker, it was baccarat with an exotic dealer. His game was not long-term investing. Those wild drives grew wilder. That deft touch around the greens dulled. His back throbbed. He once four-putted at the Masters, and when he was asked how that happened, how one of the greatest putters in golf history could four-putt, he offered one of the classic quotes in golf history: “Miss … miss … miss … make.”

He was 34 when he last contended at a major championship. He made his last cut at the British Open when he was 37. He made his last cut at the Masters when he was 38. In those later years, he would show up in Augusta with the clear understanding that he would not be around for the weekend. Everyone understood.

The talk about Ballesteros in those later years would usually start with sadness — it was sad to watch him hit the ball out of bounds and sad to see him unable to come up with the brilliant recovery shots that had marked him as a young man. It was a bit like watching James Bond get shot in the leg. But with Seve, you could never be too sad, and he would find some way to hook a shot onto the green from some absurd place and everyone would remember some impossible shot he had hit as a young man and everyone was happy again. Seve’s game, Seve’s presence, just inspired happiness.

Back to the Ryder Cup. In many ways, this was when Ballesteros was at his best. He loved the competition. He loved to prove that European players could play at the level of the best Americans. As a single player he won 20 of the 37 matches he played, halving five more, an excellent record. But it was as a team player — where he and Olazabal just lost twice in their 15 matches together — that he was all but unbeatable.

So, yes, he would say that 1997 Ryder Cup was the most important golf tournament of his life, an interesting statement, since he did not play. No one knew how Ballesteros as captain could transfer his golfing brilliance to his players — it was Updike who wrote that immortality is non transferrable. But Seve sure tried. He seemed to be everywhere that weekend; a BBC announcer remarked: “There must be two of him.” He would read a putt for this player, run back a hole and tell that player how to hit his approach, ride two holes forward to hug another player for hitting a great shot. He also drove his players mad, making them play holes twice during practice if he didn’t like the way they played it the first time, neglecting to mention to them who would and would not be playing until the morning of the competition, driving wildly around the golf course in that cart of his and so on.

“Seve knows what he’s doing,” Colin Montgomerie said. “He’s the only one who knows what he’s doing.”

It was baffling. And it was also amazing. Nobody had ever run a golf team like this. The United States was heavily favored — after all, that was the year Tiger Woods emerged on the scene. But Seve did manage, somehow, to get his team to play wonderful golf. The Europeans built up a big lead and held on to win by a point. Ballesteros, after what he called the most emotional week of his life, broke down and cried.

The moment that comes to mind today, though, happened during a practice round that week. Ballesteros was driving all over the course when he saw Ian Woosnam looking at his ball in the woods. He was in trouble. And if there was anything that Seve Ballesteros understood, perhaps more than any golfer who ever lived, it was how to get out of trouble. He drove over and looked at Woosnam’s situation. And then he saw the way out.

“Do you see that crack up there on top of the tree?” Seve asked.

Woosnam squinted and looked hard for the crack. He did not see it.

“No,” Woosnam said.

“Up there,” Seve said more insistently. “Between the branches? See?”

Woosnam looked harder.

“No,” he said again.

Seve Ballesteros died early Saturday from a malignant brain tumor. He was just 54 years old. He spent his too-short life getting in trouble and, even more, getting out. He could see the openings others could not see. He always found a way out.

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