Himself and Yer Man still able to enthrall
Some sporting greats will always be spoken of with warmth, says Dermot Gilleece
At a time of year when heroes and their doughty deeds seem to come more readily to mind, Seve Ballesteros was remembered at the European Tour's Christmas lunch in London last week. He endures through the power of his personality rather than the sort of transatlantic dominance achieved by Golfer of the Year, Henrik Stenson.
I happened to be in the company of Tour chairman, Neil Coles, who insisted that I convey warmest seasonal wishes to Christy and Mary O'Connor. The Ballesteros reflections came afterwards from fellow Spaniard, Maria Acacia Lopez-Bachiller, who was honoured for her 40 years as a press officer with the tour.
Happily, her career ran parallel with the great conquistador. At 19, her first tour assignment was the 1974 Spanish Open at La Manga, which also marked the debut of a promising 17-year-old from Pedrena at the top end of the country.
She could never have anticipated having to control a passionate, media-centre outburst 20 years later, with Ballesteros publicly accusing Jaime Patino of bribery in getting the Ryder Cup to Valderrama.
"Seve was everything," she said with obvious warmth. "We all miss him. He could enter this room and light it up with a charming smile. But he could also be like a bull, you know. In the middle of the ring when they are waiting for the matador, the bull is going arrgh, arrgh." And by way of emphasis, she simulated the angry animal's front hoof tearing at the ground.
"When he came to the media centre and he was pulling some papers from his pocket, I knew there would be trouble," she went on. "Because I knew he hadn't written it. These were things written by very bad advisers. That was his biggest problem. That was when he could throw bombs at the whole world."
But Maria could always handle him. Indeed I had first-hand experience of her remarkable talents nearly 20 years ago, when a family situation required me to get home in a hurry from Jerez. Non-transferable airline tickets posed no problem for her and I was on my way within the hour.
She had two particularly special experiences with the bold Seve. "The first was a fantastic trip I made with him in 1997 in a helicopter from Vilamoura to Valderrama," she said. "Just Seve and myself. We flew down the coast of Portugal and then into Spain, avoiding Gibraltar, of course, and the American base at Rota.
"I'm thinking what a beautiful trip this is, and there's just the pilot and me with Seve. Yet it was such a natural thing because we had grown up together on tour and had a close relationship for 28 years.
"Seve had a Ryder Cup meeting at Valderrama after attending a golf course opening in Vilamoura. People would have paid a fortune to be where I was, even though we couldn't talk, because of the engine noise and the earphones we were wearing. Not a word."
She went on: "Other times, we would talk for as long as two, maybe three hours. I could tell him you are doing things right, or you are doing things wrong, even though this was not always acceptable to his family."
One such occasion, however, could have been decidedly embarrassing for the petite mother of two boys. "It was January 1999 and we were in Valencia for a national (Spanish) event," she recalled. "Not winning since 1995 made it a frustrating period for him and he was having a bad time. Anyway, on a golf course which he himself designed, he shot something like 89 or 90.
"When I see him looking so miserable, I say we should have a little talk after dinner. And he say yes, come up to my room. So I went up to his room. And we spent something like three hours talking. Then at half past two, maybe three o'clock in the morning, I said, 'Seve, I'm going back to my room because I have to work tomorrow'.
"You should see me getting down the corridor, looking every way. If somebody saw me in his room . . . He married, me married. It would
be a disaster. But I run fast and nobody see me. Fortunately." And with that, she giggled like a teenager who had just been promised a ticket for One Direction.
When Ballesteros was paired with O'Connor in the third round of the 1980 Irish Open at Portmarnock, veteran scribe Peter Dobereiner famously wrote about "Himself playing Yer Man". Well, Himself was 89 yesterday. And in anticipation of his birthday, I paid him a visit and we talked, among other things, of that memorable Saturday in August, 33 years ago.
"I remember the two of us playing the long 13th, where Seve was through the back and I was wide of the bunker on the left," he recalled.
"He had a fairly easy up and down, but mine was a tough one. Anyway, I thought I did really well to get it to about five feet and I then sank the putt. So both of us had birdies.
"On his way towards the 14th tee, Seve stopped. He then went across to where I had chipped from and looked hard at the spot. Then came a gentle pat on my back as he whispered 'Magic'. It's nice to be able to remember these things."
After a recent journalists' outing at Royal Dublin, the talk in the bar was of a remarkable sight at the start of the back nine. From an Audi A6 parked on the service road, this familiar figure emerged and began to hit balls. Soft shots with a seven iron. For seasoned hacks, it made their day.
The magic endures.