Saturday, 7 May 2011

Seve - a sad day for all golfers and sports fans

Despite the fact that it is Saturday, and therefore my early start means golf instead of work, my happiness has been tempered by a fair degree of sadness on hearing of the death of one of the true greats of the game, and a real hero of mine. Severiano Ballesteros was one of those rare people whose fame transcends a particular sport and finds its way into the psyche of a much wider audience. To millions of people around the world, whether they were ardent golf fans or just casual observers of many different kinds of sport, he was known simply as "Seve". Following a two-year battle against a malignant brain tumour, Seve finally succumbed to the inevitable and passed away last night, at the tender age of just 54. And if the reactions of the various people I spoke to in the clubhouse today is anything to go by, it isn't just me that feels such a keen (and almost personal) sense of loss. And even though Seve's time in the spotlight finished a good few years ago, he was still viewed with affection by a great many people, to whom he gave so many great memories.

Seve was blessed with a swing which - whilst not quite textbook - was powerful, fluid and ultimately a joy to behold. He could certainly be wayward, especially with the driver in his hand, but his ability to extricate himself from difficult (and often seemingly impossible) situations on the golf course was unmatched by any other player in the history of the game. And, of course, he was a wizard around the greens. In fact, his 5 Major Championship wins (3 at The Open and 2 at The Masters) almost seem like scant reward for a man who may just have been the most naturally gifted golfer of them all. Nevertheless, a total of 91 professional tournament victories, including no less than 50 on the European Tour, amounts to a glittering career in anyone's book. And then, of course, there was the small matter of the biennial Europe v USA Ryder Cup Matches, in which Seve played 8 times between 1979 and 1995, and was the winning Captain in 1997. Until Seve came along, the Ryder Cup Matches were consistently a pretty one-sided affair, USA having lost just 3 times between 1927 and 1985.

In what was undoubtedly a golden era for golf, Seve was a true giant of the game, whose swashbuckling style and charismatic presence captured the imagination of a whole generation of sports fans, whilst his success had an almost immeasurable effect on those who followed in his wake. In fact, it isn't too fanciful to suggest that he almost single-handedly dragged the standard of the professional game in Europe - and therefore the success of European Tour itself - to the level it is at now. And in doing so, he also brought about a rise in the popularity of the game amongst amateur and club players that has endured to this day. Although I first picked up a golf club before Seve came on the scene, my interest was certainly galvanised by watching him - and his book "Seve Ballesteros - Natural Golf" has always been my golfing bible.

Of course, it takes more than talent and success to endure someone to the masses. Many sportsmen and sportswomen have the talent and the motivation to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport, but only a select few have the sheer personality and charisma necessary to really work their way into the affections of millions of fans the world over. And make no mistake, Seve was one of those people. Tiger Woods might just be the most famous person on the planet, right now - though not necessarily for all the right reasons. His talent as a golfer and his influence on both the game of golf and on millions of impressionable young people around the world is without question. But his qualities as a role model leave much to be desired, as does his demeanour and general behaviour on the golf course. The same could never be said of Seve Ballesteros.

Of course, Seve was always feisty, often controversial, occasionally angry (sometimes with himself, sometimes with others). He certainly had a "game face", which could at times be menacing and intimidating to his opponents....... and sometimes to his fans, which I experienced at first hand during the World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth in 1987. We were following his match against (I think) Sandy Lyle, and as the players putted-out on one green, we headed to the next hole, to grab a spot behind the tee. As Seve walked onto the tee, I pointed my camera at him and focused-in as he walked towards me. He and I both knew that cameras were not allowed - unless of course you were an official photographer - and he fixed me with a steely glare that I can still see clearly in my mind's eye to this day. Needless to say, I didn't get the photo. Not that he said anything to me, because he didn't need to. I knew my place - and it was an absolute privilege to be put in it by someone who I was (and still am) in absolute awe of. And it was also a privilege to see him at such close quarters as he spanked the ball down the middle of the fairway......... or perhaps even into the trees - that bit I can't remember!

But despite the "game face" and the aura, Seve could never quite hide the thrill he obviously felt at simply being out on the golf course and playing the game that he loved. And if he was in the mix - or better still, winning - then he had a smile which could light up the world. And even when his powers on the golf course began to wane, his aura never did - and that is the mark of a true legend.

Seve also had a great sense of humour, which enabled him to connect with his fans in a way that so many of today's so-called superstars would do well to emulate. My favourite such moment was when he was about to play a long iron shot from the fairway. With hundreds of spectators gathered behind him, somebody moved, just as he was about to hit the ball. He calmly stepped away from the ball, turned to the fidgety culprit and in that wonderful Spanish accent uttered the memorable line..... "Stay still, if you don't mind, please - I know you're nervous, but I am too." Just one of many wonderful memories of a wonderful golfer and a true sporting legend.

If you need a reminder about the genius of Seve (and that comedy moment mentioned above), then have a look at this little retrospective on the BBC website.

In a world which seems increasingly bereft of public figures one can really look up to - and to aspire to be like - Seve was my hero. So adios, Señor Seve, y gracias por todos los maravillosos recuerdos - Voy a levantar una copa esta noche.


Dids said...

Something Spanish tonight Leon?

Thanks for taking the time to write some wonderful and thoughtful words.

Leon Stolarski said...

Polished-off the remains of a 1998 Vina Real Gran Reserva Rioja last night, but tonight it is a couple of Languedoc reds. Still raising a glass to the great man, though - we are all Europeans, when it comes to golf! ;-)

Anonymous said...

excellent, well written epitaph to Seve: sports journalism awaits after Land Registry Leon!

Stevie G