Severiano Ballesteros (1957-2011)

The sad death of Severiano Ballesteros in May 2011 led me to reflect on the times when I saw him play during the era when he was the most gifted golfer in the world.

This blog rarely strays far from cricket.  Not because I don’t have other sporting interests – as anyone who knows me will tell you, I really do – but there simply isn’t time to pass a considered opinion on everything that’s going on out there.  At times, though, you have to break with tradition.

I’ve never played golf seriously.  Just a few chips, slashes and puts here and there, and my career never really recovered from the time I shanked a ball through my Dad’s greenhouse in 1982.  I was a teenager then and I had friends who played the game.  One of them became very good and later captained Cambridge University (using his spare time to become a brain surgeon).  Short of things to do in the school holidays (perhaps the cricket wasn’t on TV that day) I used to walk the fairways with them.  This rapidly developed into an armchair golf habit which became quite serious for a year or two and took me to professional tournaments.  The European Open at Sunningdale here, the Bob Hope British Classic at Moor Park there, the Ryder Cup at Walton Heath in the far-off days when the USA only had to turn up to win.  I even made the last two days of the Open at Troon, crouching in the middle of the fairway with hundreds of others as Tom Watson received the Claret Jug.

Each year between 1981 and 1984 I went to at least one day of the World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth.  In those days, on that course, there was one player who stood head and shoulders above all the rest, and that was Severiano Ballesteros.  The great thing about going to golf was how close you could get to the players.  Within whispering distance at the side of the green you could feel the full force of his charismatic personality and try to read every nuance of his usually volcanic expression.  The message you got, loud and clear, was that playing golf for money was a serious business.  There rarely seemed much lightness of spirit around when Seve was playing but that didn’t matter at all.  What mattered, what you took away and held for nearly thirty years, were his shots.

One year, somewhere around the middle of the West Course, on a long hole (the 12th, I think) with a row of trees across the fairway, Ballesteros played a drive that still sticks in my mind’s eye.  It left the club like an exocet missile, climbing to a fixed height and maintaining its trajectory as though guided by a laser.  But it was swerving and turning in the air at the same time like a great bowler’s inswinger.  It passed through the top of the trees (in truth this was probably a mistake but to our impressionable eyes it just looked spectacular) before curving back the other way – outswing – and coming to rest in the middle of the fairway.  It looked and felt like a trick shot.  But that was how good Ballesteros was.  His mastery was so complete that he looked as though he was showing off when all he was doing was playing the game as he could.  At the time there was literally no better player in the whole world.

As a player Ballesteros faded early as back injuries took their toll.  The seniors’ circuit wasn’t for him. But everyone who was there in his greatest days needed no reminding of how good he was.

Yesterday, at the Spanish Open, the course fell silent. José Mariá Olazábal, Ballesteros’s protégé and no stranger to serious health or form problems himself, was in tears.

Many of us with no intimate connection with him felt the same, for the times you saw a sportsman of real genius – George Best, or Roger Federer, or, in my case, Brian Lara or Seve – at their very best, stay with you for ever.

Different Shades of Green, 8th May 2011