Contributor: Robert Green
Last autumn saw the release of a documentary film about one of golf ’s great champions. In terms of the history of European golf, one of its very greatest champions. The film was entitled Seve: Artist Fighter Legend. It was, of course, a celebration of the life and career of Severiano Ballesteros, the Spanish golfer of extraordinary talent who died from a brain tumour in May 2011, aged 54.
Last year therefore marked the 10th anniversary of his passing, that circumstance leading to the publication of Seve: His Life Through the Lens, by award-winning photographer David Cannon, and the release of the film. A small premiere, attended by two of Ballesteros’ children, was held in September at the New Picture House cinema in St Andrews, the “auld grey toon” which is universally recognised as the cradle of the game of golf. The Old Course at St Andrews is the most storied links in the world. The town is, obviously, also the home and headquarters of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A), which supported the making of the film. This coming July, the Old Course will play host to the 150th staging of the Open Championship. Thirty-eight years ago, it was the place where Seve enjoyed his most magical personal (as opposed to team) moment in professional golf.
The winner of the two previous St Andrews’ Opens prior to Seve had been Jack Nicklaus, in 1970 and 1978. Referencing the words of his idol, Bobby Jones, who once said a man had to win over the Old Course to be among the greats, Nicklaus said after his triumph in 1970: “There isn’t a place I would rather win a championship than here on the Old Course at St Andrews.” It very much looked that way for Seve on July 22 1984. His euphoric celebrations after his birdie putt at the last had attempted to defy gravity for a split-second before his ball succumbed to the inevitable and fell into the hole revealed just how much that moment, that victory, meant to him. He would always subsequently define that putt as “the happiest single shot of my life”.
While he has not been with us for over a decade now, Seve’s name and reputation still resonate exceedingly strongly with golf fans. And this is not only the case for those who followed the game when he was in his pomp; specifically, the decade that spanned his first victory in The Open, in 1979, and his last, in 1988, with a couple of Masters titles in between. Oh, and there is also the matter of his peerless role in the resurrection in the fortunes of the Ryder Cup, which had become an almost moribund no-contest before Seve’s exploits in the latter part of the 1970s led to European golfers being brought in to reinforce the strength of challenge the hitherto generally outclassed Great Britain & Ireland team might be able to give to the United States. At that point, in the 16 matches since the end of World War II, GB&I had miserably won just once. It took a little time for the revitalisation to take effect but in the 18 matches since 1985 the Americans have won six, only one of them in Europe.
Part of the eternal appeal of Seve as a golfer was the way he played the game. An American sports journalist, Jim Murray, flamboyantly wrote that he goes “after a golf course like a lion at a zebra”. He would make pars from places other players would happily settle for a bogey. Sometimes he’d make birdies from those places. He once explained to me the essential difference between himself and other golfers when they hit it in the trees. “Most players look for the fairway,” he said. “I always look for the target. That’s where I want to go.” On the final hole of the 1993 European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in
Switzerland, Seve’s drive finished in a grove of trees. To have any chance of winning, he needed a birdie three. It looked like he’d be struggling to find the fairway in three. But there was a small gap in the branches above, he took out his wedge, opened the blade, and struck. Incredibly, his ball finished close to the green, some 20 yards from the hole. Even more incredibly, he chipped in. It wasn’t quite enough; he finished one shot behind the winner. But that shot had provided an emblematic display of his genius. The aforementioned documentary referred to him as an “artist”. That was a Picasso moment.
At first, in order to play golf on the course in Pedrena, rather than having to be satisfied with honing his skills on the makeshift courses he created on the beach, Seve would sneak on in the middle of the night and learn from the nature of his swing in which direction the ball had flown. In the documentary, his brother, Manuel, spoke of how Seve would do the same in the latter part of his life in an effort “to find the magic”; to rediscover the secrets of golf that been revealed to him during the hours he spent practising as a child, at first with a self-made golf club rather than with the real thing.
That Seve had an enormous talent for golf was in part because of the way he grew up learning how to play it. Unprivileged and humble. All considered, he probably possessed a short game that no one has ever surpassed; perhaps never even equalled. He had immense self-belief, which was significantly dented after he hit a terrible four-iron into the water on the 15th hole in the final round of the 1986 Masters, thereby effectively gifting the green jacket to Jack Nicklaus, but which he was able to restore to an important extent by winning his final Open Championship a couple of years later.
And Seve was a fighter, too. Muhammad Ali was an idol of his (Seve cherished a tape recording of a telephone conversation they shared). First he had to fight the establishment at his local golf club in Pedrena to be able to play on the golf course. He had to fight against the recurring back problems that dogged him from even before he turned professional aged 16. He fought against the European Tour and its rules that prohibited the payment of appearance money. He fought against the PGA Tour and its rules that ordered him to play a specific number of events in America. He fought against America’s golfers in the Ryder Cup. He fought against a golf swing that deteriorated in the 1990s to the point where it pretty much eventually deserted him.
That, and Seve’s unquenchable tenacity, were never more in evidence than in his singles match against Tom Lehman on the last day of the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in 1995. Missing fairway after fairway (he didn’t find even one off the tee), frequently by huge distances, he was somehow only one down after nine holes. In that documentary, Lehman calls what Seve did “the greatest nine holes ever played”. Who am I to argue?
Finally, Seve fought against his cancer, the one battle which even someone so resourceful and resilient as he was never going to be able to win. But let it be noted that he gave it a tough run for its money for over two and a half years. The Spanish word for ‘quit’ is rendirse. As words go, it was completely foreign to him. There was none of that in him.
For sure Seve will be remembered at St Andrews this summer. For many of us, he will never be forgotten.
Robert Green is author of the biography Seve: Golf ’s Flawed Genius and was consultant to
Seve: Artist Fighter Legend. He writes two blogs — robertgreengolf.com and f-factors.com