Seve Ballesteros was the finest golfer of his generation and the most inspiring figure I ever saw play the game. I hesitate in using the past tense, as Ballesteros isn’t dead, even if he is seriously ill. But he departed this world as a professional golfer a long time ago, which is why so many of us talk of him as if he were gone. The 51-year-old Spaniard is, as I write, recovering from two operations to remove a tumour from his brain at a Madrid hospital. The second, a “decompressive craniectomy”, involved excising a section of skull. The prognosis is not encouraging.
Between 1979, when he won his first major championship, the British Open, and 1988, when he claimed his last (another Open), Ballesteros was untouchable. He was a golfer of sublime skill and superb showmanship, capable of conjuring tricks with his clubs. He looked like Elvis, played with more swagger than Arnold Palmer, and was followed around the course by a huge fan base and brooding clouds, which loomed over his head, ready to unleash a deluge of bad feeling whenever his mood darkened, as it nearly always did when things went wrong. He dared to be different, and we loved him for it.
Growing up in the fishing village of Pedreña, near Santander, the young Seve learned to play using stones for balls and sticks, which he cut to length and whittled to a point before forcing into the hosel of a rusty old three-iron head. He arrived as an international golfer at the age of 19, when he just missed out on winning the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale. His first major three years later was followed swiftly by two US Masters titles. But it was in Britain where he became a hero. Seve epitomised the bullish, swashbuckling British links champion. “There wasn’t a shot he couldn’t play,” says his old caddy Pete Coleman. “He could be an evil son of a bitch, but everyone wanted to watch him, because in 18 holes you would always get a touch of genius.”
He was never unbeatable; he didn’t have the patience or desire to grind out results when he was playing poorly, as Tiger Woods can. But he was a fearless shot-maker.
I first saw him play on the day he confirmed his place among the greats: at the final round of the 1984 Open at St Andrews. His joy that day became ingrained as an iconic image – the 27-year-old, a majestic matador in navy blue, punching the air as the winning putt dropped.
His decline, when it came, was sad and rapid. Unlike his peers and old adversaries Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer who, to varying degrees, continue to play competitively, Seve lost what it took before he was even 40. When we met in 2003 he told me that the deterioration in his game was “100 per cent physical”. He blamed his decline on arthritis that had its roots in an old childhood boxing injury. Golf is a game of confidence, instinct and willpower. All of these deserted Ballesteros.
He raged against his own decline, as if an inexplicable wrong had been done to him. His marriage ended. He continued to miss cuts. He fiddled with his technique. To watch him play during these last years was in many ways to watch a broken man. But that image of him in his younger days, dressed in blue and punching the air on the final day at St Andrews, will remain forever inviolate.