Catching a glimpse of Seve Ballesteros's magic

Catching a glimpse of Seve Ballesteros’s magic

The news about Seve Ballesteros and his brain tumor is like getting whacked with your own golf ball after it ricochets off a tree. It’s unexpected, and it hurts. Every time I read his age in one of the AP stories I am surprised again: He’s only 51. I’m 48. When I was taking up the game, in the mid-1970s, Seve was already on the world stage, carrying European golf for a decade and then some. It’s no wonder he’s had such a bad back.

If you’re 25 or younger, older golf friends are probably explaining the magic of Seve by referring to another Spanish golfer, Sergio Garcia. If you’re a little older and in the same spot, you might be hearing about Jose Maria Olazabal, another sensational Spanish golfer. But the truth is, neither is anything like Seve. Tiger Woods is nothing like Seve. Nicklaus, Watson, Faldo and the rest, they were nothing like Seve. I missed the Palmer era, but I know, in their competitive primes, he did have what Seve had: true sporting charisma. Women were drawn to him, and men were not afraid to admit that they were, too. Seve might have been hell to live with, I don’t know and I don’t care. But over the TV, in his play in British Opens and Masters tournaments and (much less significantly) Ryder Cups, he drew you to the game. He made you want to be playing the courses he was playing. Is there someone you would say that about today?

In 1991, I spent time as a caddie on the European golf tour, in part because I wanted to see Seve up close. Early in the year, his play was horrid and people were writing him off. He was an old 34, people were saying. But after the Masters that year, he played two weeks in Japan, with a second and a win. His next time out he lost the Spanish Open in a seven-hole playoff to Eduardo Romero. Then he won the European PGA Championship in a playoff over Colin Montgomerie. The next week, at the British Masters, he won by three, with rounds of 66, 66, 68 and 75. “I cannot shoot every day 66,” he said. “I am not God.”

I had press credentials, too (I was writing a book), and after the British Masters win I asked him why he was playing better. He said: “Golf is a game of moods. I had one mood from 1976 through 1986, a mood of great confidence and great optimism. I always felt aggressive, I always had a great deal of self-control, I always felt I would get good bounces. Then in 1986, even though I won six tournaments, I didn’t win the one I wanted, the one I felt I was destined to win: the Masters. The tournament was mine to win and somehow the victory slipped away. After that, I didn’t feel so invincible.

“My conquering moods came and went. In 1987, I was down. In 1988, I was up; I won the Open, I won at Westchester, I won four others. The next year, so-so — I won three times but no majors. Then last year [1990] was the worst. I was pessimistic. I believed if something could go wrong, it would go wrong. I started thinking high numbers, not low numbers. I though there was the devil in me. I said, ‘Where has the confidence gone? Where has the optimism gone?’ It hadn’t left me. I was inside me, but I couldn’t bring it out. It was trapped. I had gone a whole year without winning — a very long time. Then at Augusta this year [1991], things started changing. I don’t know why, but they did. You make one good swing, something suddenly clicks. I don’t know how it starts, but I know where. In the mind. The mind controls the heart. The heart controls the body.”

Here’s hoping — praying — that Seve has at least one more recovery shot in him.