Seve Ballesteros made us all feel good, even when he was the bad boy

July 31, 2011

I don’t know exactly what he was… I once played a practice round with Seve at Royal Birkdale, and watched slack-jawed as he hit what might have been the most extraordinary 10-yard shot in history. Straight downwind out of a bony lie, he had about 12 feet of downhill green to work with, over a bunker. I thought he would do well to keep the ball on the green with the one sand wedge he carried. Naturally, he hit a 4-iron as hard as he could (like you don’t) into the revetted face of the bunker at a 45-degree angle away from the hole, and the ball sprang out almost backward onto the edge of the green and wandered down to about two feet from the hole. Well, slap me in the face with a smoked haddock! Who even thinks about doing that? I felt like I’d just seen a goat finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle, and apparently I had the corresponding expression on my face. Himself just looked at me sheepishly, shrugged his shoulders and said, “What…?”

I remember thinking, “I don’t know what he is.”

The man had animal grace, a kind of threatening feline quality you could see in his walk, as if he were stalking, maybe even bearing down on his prey. Having said that, he was stealth-free. Holy crap, but you always knew where he was by the noise he evoked from his adoring horde of badly dressed Brits. He could be wounded, too, frequently feeling injured by people, the golf gods or lady luck, and he could hold a grudge of continental proportions — sometimes just against the game itself — but he always, always got even. He was often petty, childish, and mercenary, but we loved him all the same.

I believe his mood could actually change the weather. When he was angry, his face was as purple as a thunder-cloud, and I was afraid to get too close to him in case a bolt of lightning might arc out of his hair and incinerate my comparatively useless ass. But when he smiled, it felt like the sun bursting out from behind the clouds, making me feel whatever was the opposite of his darkness. I seriously doubt it was just me. Watching him made us all feel good, even when he was the bad boy, if only because we were relieved we could never care as much as he did. Maybe that was the thing… he cared about golf in a way I can only care about my angel daughter. His was also a love unfathomable, infused with an aching sweetness often made into agony by the fear of loss. This was what made watching the last few years of his career, and his life, so painful for those of us who were lucky enough to know him.

Dear God, but he loved the Ryder Cup! Maybe it was for the wrong reasons, but there was never a man on either team who gave more of himself to that event. Maybe the greatest shot in the history of the Ryder Cup was his, on the last hole in West Palm Beach in 1983, when he hit his impossibly strong 3-wood from the fairway bunker.

But my favorite memory of El Gran Señor was from the week after his father had passed away. We were drawn together in the final round of the Italian Open on the holiday resort island of Albarella. He was just distracted enough to let me win, and as there were no motor vehicles allowed on the island, every player had been issued a courtesy (I kid you not) tricycle. After the trophy presentation, I was pedaling slowly through the crowd with the Italian Open trophy in my front basket, when I felt a slap on the back of my head, and Seve shot past me, grinning over his shoulder like the rogue he was. I stood on the pedals and chased the a–hole to our apartments, both of us laughing the whole way there.

Wait a minute, I do know what Seve Ballesteros was, and I’m secure enough in my masculinity to go ahead and say it. He was beautiful.