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Tribute to Seve Ballesteros: Bravura matador...a maverick genius

It is almost exactly 10 years to the day since I stood at the back of the practice range at Lyon Golf Club watching Seve Ballesteros hitting his shots.

Seve Ballesteros with the Ryder Cup after victory in 1997   Photograph: Getty
Seve Ballesteros with the Ryder Cup after victory in 1997 Photograph: Getty

Watching and waiting, anxiety rising, as the time set aside for our interview was disappearing fast. It was the eve of the 2001 French Open at Villette-d’Anthon, and Ballesteros was the only reason I was there.

Eventually, he came over. “I can’t do it now,” he said briskly, in a voice that made it clear there would be no further discussion of the matter. “I have to work more. If I talk to you I’ll have no chance tomorrow.”

I was livid. A lot of time, trouble and money had been invested in getting me to France, and Ballesteros had just blown it all because the interview would be a minor inconvenience to him. It would be an understatement to say I wasn’t exactly heartbroken the next day when he shot 74, 11 off the lead, and promptly withdrew.

One week later, the European circuit had moved on to England, for the Benson & Hedges International Open at The Belfry. I would have been happy to ditch the whole thing, but my paper still wanted the interview and new arrangements had been made. Waiting for him in the course hotel, I was in no mood to be messed around with again.

He arrived early. I had some feisty questions prepared and was ready to stand up to any more arrogance, but Ballesteros reset the agenda with sheer charm. Again and again, he apologised for the brush-off seven days earlier. He was under pressure, he said. Now, I could have as much of his time as I wanted.

And he gave it. There are few more tiresome clichés in this business than to say that a subject has opened his heart, but for once that description was almost unavoidable. Humility, warmth and contrition poured from him, and I had his undivided attention for an hour. At one point, Nick Faldo walked by, but Ballesteros scarcely seemed to notice.

So which Ballesteros should we remember? The haughty, conceited, brusque Ballesteros in France, or the modest, attentive figure at the Belfry. The only answer is that we should hold both dear, for Ballesteros embraced opposites. The golf world stood in awe of his talent, of gifts that survived the expiry of his competitive presence, but the fascination of the man always lay in his maddening, magnetic, charismatic character as much as what he did on the golf course.

“In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful” wrote Hugh McIlvanney in the wake of Sir Matt Busby’s death 17 years ago. “The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, is that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few.”

Such exquisite words are worth recycling in the context of a player whose 91 professional victories provide only the crudest measure of his significance to his sport. Ballesteros changed golf in a way that invites comparison only with Arnold Palmer and, at a stretch, Tiger Woods. The European Tour he joined in 1974 was a ramshackle collection of low-key events – his first-year earnings were £2915 – but he almost singlehandedly took it into the financial stratosphere over the next 25 years.

His effect on the Ryder Cup was even more significant. Towards the end of the 1970s, the USA’s biennial rout of Great Britain and Ireland was no longer credible in its original form. Some believed it should be ditched completely; others suggested that the GB&I team should be expanded to include the rest of Europe. In effect, it was a plea for a Great Britain, Ireland and Seve Ballesteros side.

Ballesteros would play in eight Ryder Cups, winning 22½ points in the process. Had he played in the 1981 event at Walton Heath – he was voted off the team for playing too much in America – he may well have equalled or bettered Faldo’s record of 25 points, the most any European has won. He also captained the side to victory at Valderrama in 1997, driving his team on by the sheer force of his passionate personality.

His fiery approach to life and sport made him the player and person he was, drove him to everything he achieved. It also brought him into regular conflict with the pedants and pettifoggers among golf’s authorities, and he ran a running battle with officials, timekeepers and referees. There were also disputes with fellow players, hinted at by Paul Azinger’s infamous description of him as the “master of gamesmanship”.

Ballesteros knew his worth – there were disputes over appearance fees as well – and he grew rich on his abilities. But his style, his whole life in fact, was a repudiation of the stifling blandness and the corporate demands for which his sport has too often seemed willing to sell its soul. Had he been willing to bow to that philosophy, he would have grown much richer still.

And always, there was that urge to prove himself. He was not born into abject poverty, but circumstances at the family home in Pedrena, on the stormy Cantabrian coast of Spain, 40 miles west of Bilbao, were straitened enough to plant a determination to have more. For all that he achieved, and for all the swagger of his bearing when he was in his pomp, there was always an air of vulnerability about Ballesteros. He never quite parted company with the eight-year-old who took his first steps in golf by knocking pebbles across the beach with a cut-down 3-iron.

The commonly held view of Ballesteros, who announced himself to the wider world in 1976, when he finished second at The Open Championship at the age of 19, is that he was brilliant from day one as a professional. Yet it is a little-known detail of his life that, after missing the cut at his first three professional events, he not only returned to Pedrena, but returned to caddying on his local course for 25p per round. The experience was salutary; he pledged he would never go through it again.

Has any player ever had a wider streak of defiance? The love of his life was Carmen Botin, a high-born Spanish beauty from the family who just happened to own the Bank of Santander. Carmen’s father, reputed to be the second richest man in Spain at the time, was said to be opposed to the relationship. Ballesteros was no more likely to be rebuffed in matters of the heart than he was in his sporting ambitions. The couple married in 1988.

It might be seen as the saddest episode of his life that, following their parting in 2004, Ballesteros admitted that the split owed something to his frustration at having to deal with his diminishing powers on the course. There was a reconciliation of sorts, and it is said she was an attentive presence at his bedside in the days following his collapse in October 2008, the first sign of the brain tumour that took his life yesterday. When Ballesteros talked of his family, there was no question that golf was not his greatest priority.

And yet there was an unmistakable poignancy in his battle to recover his glory days. Ballesteros suffered all sorts of indignities, posted scores that made his admirers wince and look away, before he acknowledged the inevitable, admitted that what he had lost was never going to come back, and made the dignified announcement that he was retiring from the sport, just before The Open at Carnoustie in 2007.

His departure was met with sadness, as it inevitably revived memories of the swashbuckling figure he had been, and relief for the fact that the humiliation was over. At the time, it was hard to resolve those two emotions, but history will be kind to Ballesteros. The legend will speak only of his brilliance, and say nothing of his decline.

He made his mark, quite literally, on golf courses across the world with his matador bravura. There is a plaque by the 10th tee at The Belfry to commemorate his famous shot at the 1985 Ryder Cup, and another beside the 18th fairway at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland to mark the spot from which he hit an approach to the green from hard against a wall. Having stood there, I still struggle to imagine how he did it.

Some years after our first interview, I travelled to Spain to speak to Ballesteros again. Inevitably, the conversation was dominated by his waning talent, and his struggle to come to terms with what he had lost.

He shrugged. Those doleful, melancholic eyes had a faraway look, but then they sparkled once again. “I always say the same thing that my father did,” he began. “There is no bad thing that does not have a little good in it. I’ve missed a lot of cuts, but the good thing is that I was able to be at home and spend time with my family. There’s nothing better in this world than to know that people love you and appreciate you. That’s what counts. That’s what’s really important.”

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