Monday 29 May 2017

A beacon of light who shimmered with class

We'll never see the like of this charming and quite brilliant man again, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

With a mischievous smile on his handsome face and adventure in his heart, Seve Ballesteros caught the imagination of golf fans like no other player of his generation. And as a powerful endorsement of his extraordinary appeal in this country, Joe Flanagan, the tournament director of the Carrolls Irish Open, famously remarked: "If you had Seve, you felt you had the makings of a successful event."

It is doubtful if even his native Spain owed Ballesteros as great a debt of gratitude as Ireland did. Three times winner of the Irish Open, he made it, almost single-handedly, second only to the Open Championship in the European pecking order.

The irrepressible swashbuckling nature of his play found a special place in Irish hearts. And the feeling seemed to be mutual.

Memories come flooding back of moments such as the presentation ceremony for the 1990 Dubai Desert Classic, where Ireland were set for a clean sweep of the leading positions, but for the interference of "some bloody Spaniard", as Des Smyth humorously put it. Whereupon Ballesteros piped up, "It was me; it was me." This was when Eamonn Darcy won the tournament, David Feherty was runner-up and Smyth was forced to share third place with the Spanish intruder.

These are but glimpses of a hugely charismatic sportsman who dominated much of my golf-writing career and whose decision to retire from tournament play during the week of the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie provoked mixed feelings among all who knew him. And those who hoped he would find peace after more than a decade of torment on the golf course could hardly have imagined the truly shocking physical developments which lay in wait.

In his prime, Ballesteros often captured the imagination more for his exploits as Europe's talisman in the Ryder Cup than for other tournament performances. For instance, speaking as a colleague on the 1991 team at Kiawah Island, Feherty said later: "No player but Seve had the ability to make my hair stand on end, simply by watching him play. By that time, I had idolised him for the best part of 15 years, since he first hit the headlines at Birkdale. I found his presence to be quite extraordinary and I can still picture him prowling around, prodding players, grabbing them by the back of the neck, hugging them.

"He's a very physical person; personal contact is very important to him as a means of communication. At Kiawah, he made a particular point of coming to the newcomers in the side, players like myself and David Gilford, Paul Broadhurst and Steven Richardson. He deliberately made himself feel small in our company so as to strengthen the bond between us. He bared his soul to us, telling of his own vulnerability, so that we might think of him as an equal, as just another member of the team. His motivational powers were phenomenal and as far as he was concerned, we were all in this thing together, all pulling together."

Ballesteros first graced our golfing terrain in 1976, when an aggregate of 288 gave him fifth place behind Ben Crenshaw in the Irish Open at Portmarnock. Though he was an absentee in 1981 and 1982, his visits were sufficiently frequent to allow him amass a then formidable £87,390 in Irish Open prize money alone, between 1976 and 1986. By that stage, he had won it three times -- in 1983 and 1985 at Royal Dublin and at Portmarnock the following year.

Even when his game went into serious decline, he was always welcome here. And I can recall his excitement on experiencing Ballybunion for the first time in the 2000 Murphy's Irish Open. "Ballybunion demands greater imagination and shot-making skills than anything I have ever known," he enthused. "It makes me feel the same way as when I first saw St Andrews (where he won the second of his three Opens in 1984). The magic is the same.

"It is a piece of art, a unique stretch of land; not like anything I have ever played. It demands all the shots, especially around the greens. I wish I had more time to get to know it better, because local knowledge is very important."

With those closing words, he was almost anticipating a failure to make the cut which, sadly, came to pass. When he first came on tour, youthful exuberance and an obvious passion for the game, set him apart. We remember how he took Royal Birkdale by storm as a callow 19-year-old in the 1976 Open, when finishing second to Johnny Miller.

Two years later, he played the US Masters for a second time. It provided him, as Gary Player's playing partner, with a first-class view of a breathtaking rally which saw the South African card a course record-equalling final round of 64 to capture the title by a stroke.

This was just the inspiration Ballesteros needed to go where no European had gone before. At 23 years and four days, he became the youngest-ever winner of the title when donning the coveted green jacket for a first time in 1980. He was champion again three years later, and should have won a third title in 1986 when he led by two strokes playing the long 15th for the last time. But he suffered the indignity of dumping a four-iron second shot into water, so opening the door for a stunning sixth triumph from Jack Nicklaus.

A popular misconception is that he was essentially an instinctive golfer who accepted a certain wildness in his play in the belief that superb recovery skills would cope with most situations. In fact, his approach to the game was extremely methodical, especially where the Masters was concerned.

By the autumn of 1979, he had decided that 1980 would be his year at the cathedral in the pines. So it was that prior to the World Matchplay Championship at tree-lined Wentworth, he made the radical move of shortening his back-swing so as to achieve greater control. Of lesser consequence was a semi-final defeat against Isao Aoki at the 40th: his thinking was dominated by a far more seductive prize.

Then, on returning to his home in Pedrena for the winter, he would throw golf balls in among the pine trees so as to practise the sort of recovery shots he might encounter at Augusta. And in the evenings, he would stand in front of a full-length mirror in the farmhouse stables, down among the cows, and re-shape his takeaway. As he later explained: "I wanted to see myself take the club back more in one piece."

He also visited a Barcelona-based psychiatrist, specialising in positive thinking, and came away with a 30-minute cassette of the doctor's soothing voice which he would plug into his ear at appropriate times. Then there was the acquisition of a so-called 'Gravity Gym' machine, a fixed trapeze device which he had seen in the Perth home of Australian golfer Graham Marsh and which he believed would strengthen his suspect back.

Meanwhile, he was introduced to Irish golf by his first sight of Christy O'Connor Snr in a European Tour event. Eagerly observing all the great players as part of his golfing education, he studied the veteran Galwayman in action.

Some years later, when I met his older brother Manuel at La Manga, he recounted Seve's reaction. Apparently the teenager had rushed into their Pedrena home exclaiming: "Manolo! Manolo! I have just watched a player with the most wonderful hands I have ever seen. His name is Christy O'Connor." And Manuel, a tournament player in his own right, smiled in agreement, because he, too, had marvelled at those wonderful hands, many times.

This vignette lends an inescapable charm to a memorable third round of the Irish Open at Portmarnock in August 1980, when Ballesteros was paired with his one-time idol. In a delightful piece for the Observer, Peter Dobereiner famously referred to the protagonists as "Himself" and "Your Man".

He reported: "The entire population of Dublin, plus a few thousand out-of-towners, trooped across Portmarnock to watch Your Man playing Himself. Dublin had seen nothing like this since the day the Pope landed on Phoenix Park, and no less piety, either.

"It proved to be an absorbing confrontation, most of the multitude seeing it as a match between these two legendary figures with the rest of the tournament being an irrelevant side-show. It was youth versus experience, Himself's swing as smooth as draught Guinness, despite rheumaticky joints, and Your Man playing more like the golfer who won the US Masters last April."

As it happened, Ballesteros shot a 67 that day to O'Connor's 72. But it wasn't about prize-money or placings; this was a coming together of two remarkable talents from separate generations.

During the 1980s, his most productive decade, Ballesteros could excite a golfing attendance like no other player, before or since. But even when dazzling skills had dulled almost beyond recognition, his appeal endured because in the true Hollywood tradition, he was a timeless star.

So it is that we can accord him the ultimate accolade by saying with absolute conviction that we shall never, ever see his like again.

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