Like the rest of his life, Seve made his time in America count

May 10, 2011

You never heard Seve say how much he liked America. He didn’t like our bland strawberries, our corporate hotels, our fast lunches and slow highways, our tree-lined U.S. Open courses. He and Deane Beman didn’t hang at beach bars drinking San Miguel. Still, you could take away everything except what he did in the United States and he would still, as Bobby Jones said of St. Andrews, have led a rich and full life.

Severiano Ballesteros, like Jones, was loaded with style and he played with boyish joy. That’s why his long Spanish name will always bring pleasure whenever golf-heads are talking about the Masters or Great Natural Swings of the Twentieth Century or the ’95 Ryder Cup at Rochester, which the Europeans won by a point. It was Seve, of course, who made the unusual Ballesteros-David Gilford pairing at Oak Hill so memorable. The Spaniard and the Englishman won one match and lost another, but all you can remember is the victory, and Seve’s glee Sunday night, dispensing hugs in the ridiculous green double-breasted sport coat the Euros wore. Seve made the thing look good. He made David Gilford a star, for a day.

Ballesteros won eight times in the U.S.: once in Greensboro, once in New Orleans, twice at Westchester, twice at Augusta and twice in the Ryder Cup, at Oak Hill and in ’87, when the Europeans beat an American team led by Jack Nicklaus on a course Jack built, Muirfield Village. Seve — you may remember the sky-blue shirt and the navy pants and the hatless head — made the putt that secured the European win. Like Nicklaus before him, Seve always stayed crouched while his putts were rolling, which is why there are so many thrilling photographs of him holing putts. In his jubilance, his putter would come up and then his head and then his right fist, punching the air.

Despite what you have heard, he drove it beautifully, with a mushy balata ball and the most beautiful persimmon drivers you ever saw. Actually, it’s hard to say how nice the woods were. Swung by another player, maybe they would have looked ordinary. But in his tanned hands they looked like artworks. There’s no good reason why he never finished better than third in a U.S. Open — let’s not even talk about the PGA — except that he didn’t like our strawberries.

He was at home in one place in the United States, and that of course was Augusta National. He liked the cozy second-floor dining room, where he would have long lunches with family members. He won at Augusta in 1980 and ’83 and he was in the Sunday mix there another six times, seven if you count 1978, when he finished in a tie for 18th.

In ’78, Gary Player came from seven shots back and won from the clubhouse by a stroke over Tom Watson and Rod Funseth and Hubert Green. For Player, it was the last of his nine major victories. He was 42. His Sunday playing partner was a kid celebrating his 21st birthday.

On 18 on Sunday, when Player’s longish putt for 64 was rolling, the young Seve was standing on the edge of the green. The putt dropped and Seve’s fists went up, above his shoulders, and the way he was smiling you thought he was the one getting fitted for a green jacket. Anybody could tell what was happening. Seve was happy for Player, of course. But the thrill was being part of such a perfect round of golf. Not a witness. A part. Seve felt things deeply, golf most especially. He made everything personal.

Two years later, Ballesteros became the first European to win the Masters. In years after, his European contemporaries — Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam — followed him to Butler Cabin. Seve won by four, with a smart pedestrian closing round of 72. When he got into the cabin for the traditional winner’s interview, the new Augusta chairman, Hord Hardin, asked the new champ, “Seve, how tall are you?” It was a perfect question for the golfing artiste. He could have answered in English or Spanish, in meters or feet. He could have said, “As tall as I feel.” He felt the game and he felt life. We could all see that. He made his 54 years count.