Meeting your heroes is almost always a disappointment. It's not their fault; it's ours. How can they possibly ever live up to the expectations we mortals have of them as gods in the sporting arena? Better to worship from afar and imagine them as perfect. But there are exceptions. America has Arnold Palmer. Europe had Seve Ballesteros.
The last time I spoke to Seve was at the 2006 British Open at Hoylake. On the eve of the championship, as the clubhouse was bathed in a glorious sunset, Seve was the only player on the practice green, putting with two of his sons. It was a fabulous private family moment witnessed by half a dozen of us loitering around the edge of the green, and more than a 100 people drinking inside the clubhouse and craning their necks for a view through the windows.
"I wanted my boys to get a sense of what the Open is all about," Seve told me. His eldest son caddied for his first two rounds before the inevitable missed cut. "I don't know if I'll be back again next year," he said. "We'll have to wait and see."
The first time I visited Seve at his tumbleweed home village of Pedrena (pop: 1,500) on a peninsula in northeastern Spain was in the late 1990s. We had lunch at the golf club where he grew up caddying and dreaming of far away glory. The clubhouse manager had known Seve all his life. "I have watched him grow up," he said. "He is much the same now as he ever was."
Seve showed me the spot where he used to climb over the fence to play at the back of the course in the twilight hours. As a caddie he was not allowed to play during the day. He showed me how he used to step on the wayward golf balls of tourists in the rough and go back to steal them later.
As we walked the course, Seve recognized two elderly ladies on the first tee and went over to greet them. He then turned to me and said, "Let's play nine holes." He rustled up a half-set of clubs and off we went; my heart pumping like a steam hammer, arms and legs recently dipped in gelatin. I was aiming for fairways; Seve was seemingly aiming for France. He kept stopping to offer short-game tips. The sort of skills that would no doubt one day come in handy at the member guest. Like how to chop flop shots out of greenside rough. With a 3-iron! How to execute the perfect splash shot from a bunker. With a 3-iron! He mocked my hopelessness and cheered when I finally put clubface to ball. He peppered the pin for fun. I marveled at his madness and genius.
The last time I saw Seve in Pedrena was in 2002. Again he hosted lunch at the golf club. But then he got the notion that he wanted to give the photographer and me the grand tour. He cajoled a friend at the club to be our taxi driver, and the four of us bundled into a dirty, rusty Peugeot and headed down the hill to the village.
We stopped outside the humble cottage where Seve grew up. "The cows lived in a shed on the first floor and heated the rooms upstairs." He took us to the beach where his legend began, armed with just a 3-iron and an imagination that knew no boundaries. His pal double-parked the Peugeot almost on the beach. A police patrol car spotted us and began to approach. Seve leapt out of the Peugeot's passenger seat and waved at the police officers. They waved back. Crisis over. World superstar and local hero. Seve picked up a twig and tied a paper handkerchief around it to make a flag in the sand just the way he used to when he was a child. He even posed for a re-enactment of that half-punch salute from the 18th green at St. Andrews in 1984, when he won the British Open with such unbridled joy. It was the image that became the logo for his company. He must have gone through this routine dozens of times for reporters over the years, yet he embraced it with such enthusiasm and energy. He made us feel we were the first to ever ask.
Seve remained proud of his Pedrena roots. He never forgot where he came from. The riches that were the rewards for his success meant he was able to live in the Big House on the Hill, but he left his ego on tour. Many of his childhood friends still live and work in the area as fishermen, farmers, factory workers and caddies. "I still socialize with everyone, eat in the restaurants, and go to the same bars I've always been to," he said. "We just talk about golf and football. They don't see me as higher than them. They treat me like they always have. This is my home. This is where I was born, the beach where I used to practice. All my friends are here. People are not jealous. Okay, I have the big house but I live modestly. I don't have a Ferrari or a jet."
The first thing you noticed about Seve was that blinding and disarming smile that burst forth from those dazzling perfect white teeth, and then those deep-set brown eyes that in his 1980s pomp made teenage girls scream. Men wanted to be him; women want to be with him. Even in his 50s, Seve was still achingly handsome, that thick, coal-black mop of hair now tinted with nature's gray highlights.
Seve never had an entourage of sycophants traipsing after him or bodyguards rushing him to exits and keeping the public at arm's length. Seve had time for everyone and anyone. He was a working class hero who was just as comfortable in the company of kings and golf fans. He was a sporting god who never lost his common touch.
Nobody, of course, is perfect. Seve could be feisty, confrontational, intimidating, bad-tempered and moody, but he never bore grudges. He was joyous, charming, charismatic, witty, approachable, and boy, he was cool. His aura simply oozed sex appeal. He was Elvis in slacks and that navy-blue Sunday sweater. It was a privilege to be around him. Seve made it easy.