With his passion for golf and life, Seve brought exuberance to the game

May 7, 2011

How did this cruel thing happen? How did the life of this impossibly vital man — the one, the only Seve! — end at the age of 54? If cancer, of the brain in this case, had even a shred of decency it would show a little respect and pass over the house of a man who oozed life with his every step, who gave back to fans simply by being his exuberant one-of-a-kind self. But it doesn’t. And so, with the death of Severiano Ballesteros, one of the game’s true originals, the world of golf is more tame and less exciting.

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Seve is in the pantheon, in a special division with Young Tom Morris and Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones and Se Ri Pak and Lee Trevino, groundbreaking golfers who introduced the game to remote places. Seve was the Arnold Palmer of Europe. Wherever he went in what is now the European Union, from British Opens played at St. Andrews to Italian Opens played in Sicily, Seve was beloved. Without Seve, there is no Jose Maria Olazabal, no Sergio Garcia, no Alvaro Quiros, to name three Spanish golfers who followed in his cleat steps. There’s no Costantino Rocca, no Francesco or Edoardo Molinari, no Matteo Manassero, to name four Italians. There’s no War by the Shore, as the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island came to be known, without Seve. In fact there’s no modern Ryder Cup at all. There’s no Presidents Cup. There’s no Solheim Cup. There’s certainly no Seve Cup.

“I’m not sure who is our logo for the European Tour, but I’d certainly back putting Seve on it as the figurehead of the European Tour,” Padraig Harrington said on Friday at Quail Hollow.

Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and Sam Snead had the good sense to be born within a half-year of one another, all in 1912, as did Seve, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, all born within 11 months of each other in 1957 and ’58. Ballesteros was the pace-setter and the ring-leader of that remarkable group of Eurostars. The rest of the foursome made Seve bigger, the way Lanny Wadkins and Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin and Tom Watson helped make Nicklaus Nicklaus in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ballesteros grew up in coastal Spain, in Pedrena, the son of a greenkeeper and the nephew of a European tour player. He turned pro at 16 and at 19 led the 1976 British Open through three rounds and in the end was the runner-up to Johnny Miller. A month later he won the Dutch Open — by eight shots. Between ’76 and ’95, Ballesteros won 91 tournaments around the world, including three British Opens and two Masters. It was a short, intense career, and when he shook his fists after holing meaningful putts you’d sometimes think the green was heaving with him.

He was never one to pal around with large groups of friends, but wherever he went — on the driving range, in Europe’s better restaurants, at football matches and bicycle races — he drew stares. Other players used to love to sneak peaks at him hitting balls. He brought so much brio to it.

“He didn’t speak much English when he won in ’76 in Holland,” said Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, a prominent agent who played the European tour in the Seve era. “The whole tour was talking about him. You’d see him at the French Open with a cashmere sweater wrapped around his neck. He was a good-looking bastard, wasn’t he?”

He certainly was. It wasn’t just that he was handsome, which he was, with his floppy dark hair and dark skin and lively eyes and bright-white teeth. Also, he dressed the part, the Continental golfer, with smooth, trim slacks and navy sweaters. But the thing that made him so attractive, to men and women, was that anyone, no matter how little you knew about golf, could see the joy that golf gave him. Check out the clips of him winning the Open at the Old Course in ’84. Nobody could have had more fun winning a championship. How many people were drawn to the game from that? No one can say. Millions.

One of the charming things Ballesteros did was actually pay attention to the game’s lesser-known players, and call them by name. Once, in a European event, Ballesteros saw a young, near-broke American golfer who played in Europe, Peter Teravainen, who was practicing with a worn glove. “Peter,” the great man said, “what is that on your hand?” Peter apologized for the condition of his glove. “Peter, I want you to have this glove,” Ballesteros said. He gave Teravainen a brand new glove from his bag. “Ten times nicer than any pro-shop glove I had ever used,” Teravainen said. “Peter, please use this glove today,” Ballesteros said. Seve won the tournament, the 1983 British PGA Championship at Royal St. Georges, and 15,000 pounds. Teravainen won 1,220 pounds, until then the biggest check of his career. “Golf ran very deeply through his entire soul,” Teravainen said.

Ballesteros grew up with golf, but also soccer and cycling, and Seve didn’t approach golf the old British way, as Sergio Garcia noted on Friday. Still, he was an even more popular figure in the British Isles than he was in Spain. He could get in your face. Back when Augusta National members made many of the rulings decisions at the Masters, Ballesteros would tyrannize the officials as they contemplated decisions that would be adverse to him. He would stand inches away and gesticulate wildly and often get his way. In Ryder Cup play, it was much the same. In American golf circles, stories of Seve’s gamesmanship have been going around for years. But the thing about Seve, you couldn’t stay mad at him for that long because, among other qualities, he was for years and years so fun to watch.

Although he had, like Arnold Palmer, a long period of decline. He was essentially through as a player by 1995, but he continued to play a full schedule for at least another half-decade. He always said his back was the problem but many thought the great Ballesteros, the most natural of golfers, actually had head problems. There were many British Opens and Masters where he looked like a world-beater on the driving range, with his super-flowing athletic swing, and then would hit short snap hooks on the course and lose balls and fight with rules officials and shoot 78. It was often said that his marriage to the patrician Carmen Botin, the daughter of an immensely wealthy Spanish banker, could not withstand the decline of his golf skill. Botin was as reserved as Ballesteros was demonstrative.

But Seve’s fallow period is not what people will remember about him. People will remember the ’97 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, which he almost single-handedly brought to Continental Europe for the first time. To Spain, of course. People will remember how he played every significant shot in that Ryder Cup, which is pretty amazing because he wasn’t even a player on that team. He was the European captain and the Americans, really, never had a chance. The European players were playing for a god, for the man who, in a very real sense, made their lives possible.

Stephanie Wei contributed reporting to this article from Charlotte, N.C.