Severiano Ballesteros, Europe's greatest golfer, died on May 7th, aged 54.
As he struck the ball, Seve Ballesteros feared he had overdone it. After a good 3-wood tee shot and a decent sand-wedge to the 18th green at St Andrews in 1984, the ball was only 15 feet below the hole. Now, in his sheer eagerness to win, he had hit it too hard. But no. The ball rolled sweetly towards the hole, improbably curving round, hovered on the edge of the cup, then tumbled in. It seemed to go in slow motion as he willed it and willed it forward. And with that he had won the Open.
His joy then, as he punched the air, raised his arms to the crowd, laughed and almost danced, was perhaps the most ecstatic moment ever seen in golf. Later he made that image his logo. Bags, shirts, caps and putter-covers proclaimed him to be the best. And for more than a decade, from 1979 to 1991, he was. He won three British Open championships and two Masters, and over his whole career bore off 87 titles. He was in the European Ryder Cup team that in 1985 overturned 28 years of American domination, and later led a team to Ryder victory himself.
It was also beautifully done, inspiring a whole generation of European golfers. He had strength for the long game, finesse and subtlety for the short game, but also a daring that bordered on recklessness. Pure passion made him drive his tee shots into car parks, gorse and bunkers, but this was a man who could pitch a ball over an eight-foot wall, or hook a 5-iron shot round a tree, or chip-and-run through a tiny gap between two yawning bunkers, and sink the putt for an improbable birdie. He was always in trouble, yet he never was.
Luck, said some. Miraculous, said others, as they sighed at his soft blasts out of bunkers on to the green, or the fluid grace of his swing. Commentators talked of natural genius, as though he was still a seven-year-old whacking a pebble with a home-made club on a beach in Cantabria. His impoverished family put it down to destino. Such talk annoyed him. It was all hard graft and iron discipline: hitting a ball, alone, for hours. It started in boyhood, putting into tomato cans on a bumpy two-hole piece of field on his parents' farm, or driving into a fishing net hung in the barn. He reckoned he had hit 1,000 balls a day. Because he had only one club, a 3-iron, he learned how to do everything with it: low, powerful shots, high, soft-landing shots and impossible recovery shots out of long, tangled grass. He could improvise his way out of anything.
Admirers asked where the passion came from. He found it hard to explain. The joy of impact, finding the sweet spot on the club-face and feeling the ball obey, visualizing the perfect shot and sensing that he could achieve it, was a large part of it. But pride fired him more. Man and boy, he was consumed by the need to prove himself. First against his three brothers, who also became professional golfers; against the old guard at the Royal Golf Club at Pedrea, who treated him like dirt when he caddied there; against the Americans, whose players, he assumed, had been formally instructed on world-class courses, and who thought the Masters and the Ryder Cup belonged to them; against anyone who thought he was inferior, or tried to control him with senseless regulations. Though the European Tour owed so much to him, he fell out badly with its officials in the 1980s—even being left out of the 1981 Ryder Cup team, when he was ranked number one in both Europe and the world.
He started every game to win it, and sometimes wept when he failed. About three weeks before each big tournament he would enter a bubble of concentration that muffled even the crowd's applause. He was aware only of his body, the club, the ball, and the winning interaction between them. Hence the expression, serious even to mournful, that shadowed his film-star-handsome face on the course. But he was not above a little psychological warfare—the odd cough, the innocent remark—to put his rivals off their stroke. And as he politely shook their hands, he would be thinking: “I am going to bury you.”
He had made his name on the professional golfing scene at 19, still a gawky lad continually hitching up his trousers, throwing away a lead with sublime impatience at Royal Birkdale in 1976. He left the scene early, too. At Augusta in 1986, when he lost the Masters with a clumsy 4-iron shot into water at the 15th, he felt his touch was fading. Increasingly through the 1990s he missed the cut for tournaments and slid down the rankings of players. Back pain crippled him. His marriage broke up, leaving him alone in the huge new house he had built at Pedrea with display cases full of silver cups and an 18-hole course in the garden, and in 2008 he was diagnosed with the brain cancer that killed him.
Golf, he often said, was a mysterious thing. Despite all his practice, some days he played well and others badly. A good swing would come, then disappear. On that fantastic day at St Andrews in 1984 he had “dressed for the kill” at the 15th, pulling on his dark-blue Slazenger sweater in which he had won at Lytham five years earlier as if it was a matador's suit of lights. On other occasions he watched ruefully as the shot, like the bull, avoided the target. The ball rose, travelled and fell; you were born, you did your best, you died. The arc of golf was perhaps no more biddable than the sad trajectory of his life.