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Kevin Myers: Seve's dignity and joy rewrote world's image of Spanish people

You will not usually come to this space to read about golf.

There is a good reason for this. When considering the matters of A) Moroccan slave-galleys; B) the immolation of widows on their Indian husband's funeral pyres; C) the footbreaking and binding of girls' feet in China; D) boy chimney-sweeps in England; E) the Thirty Years War in Bohemia; and F) the Masters from Augusta, in terms of unspeakable awfulness, I'm never quite sure which should be placed second after F. Frankly, in the entire history of deplorable human conduct, little comes close to golf.

Yet today's column is nonetheless on this very subject, though I confess, I don't know whether I should use a caddy or a godwit to get a bogey. Which is fine, because you don't need to know anything on the sport to be aware of Seve Ballesteros, who did more for Spain than anyone since Velasquez.

One must be a certain age -- and I have that deplorable distinction -- to be aware of the image that Spain had before Seve (and like everyone else writing about the man, I will speak of him henceforth as such). For Spain had a pretty bad 20th century.

Not content with escaping the First World War (unlike its unfortunate neighbour Portugal) Spain decided it needed to have its very own Somme, which it staged in its own back yard. All civil wars are evil, but few achieve the bottomless depravity of the Spanish Civil War, in which maybe 200,000 people were executed (as opposed to being killed in action).

It is now the accepted myth in Ireland that there was a "good" side fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the International Brigade. But only the depraved and modish anti-Catholicism of our current political culture could ignore the atrocities done by Communist forces: the thousands of priests slaughtered, the nuns raped and butchered. Not dissimilar to golf, when you come to think about it.

The wrong side won, of course: but this is always the case in a civil war, because the right side never participates. Anyway, the victor was the fascist, Franco, who knew neither the meaning of laughter, nor joy, nor happiness. He was the embodiment of a Spanish nation of his imagination: dour, austere, philistine, humourless and grimly Catholic. Like De Valera, he only had to look into his own soul to know how his own people felt: unlike De Valera, he never thought to consult them about his conclusions. Spain even sent an army to join the Nazis in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Such behaviour truly merits the term "delusional psychopathy".

Yet despite this additional and quite gratuitous catastrophe, Franco remained the face of Spain for decades to come. The few other things that we knew about the country tended to confirm this Franco-image. There was the flamenco, with lots of determined head-tossing, foot-stamping, snorting and grimacing. And there was bullfighting, a depravity in which men in tights dance artistically around a single male cow, firstly maiming it, and then, once it has been sufficiently crippled, harpooning it to death. Neither cultural tradition suggests a bundle of laughs.

And finally, there was Real Madrid, which produced the most sublime club soccer in the world -- but whose backbone came from Hungary, Argentina and Brazil.

And the popular image wasn't all that different from reality. Much against my youthful principles, I once went to pre-democracy Spain: La Guar- dia Civil were very visibly the arm of a police state. Unsmiling, chain-smoking men sat in cafes, dourly breakfasting on napalm-brandy, black coffee and gloom. Nobody laughed, nobody smiled, nobody joked. Such was the international image of Spain until the mid-1970s.

Then along came the kid Seve Ballesteros. Just look at all the many recent photographs of him. In how many of them is he not laughing or smiling? None. And look at those eyes: the humour, the kindness, the compassion, the humanity, they're all 100pc genuine. Now I wish he'd chosen another sport -- verruca-lancing or haemorrhoid-hunting or downhill-sewing -- but he chose golf: yet therein lay his real triumph, for not merely did he bring joyfulness to the image of Spain, he did the same for the most excruciating sport the world has known since the IOC dropped the Inquisition from the Olympics.

Until Seve erupted on the fairway, big-time golf was played almost entirely by middle-aged Americans whose trousers were tailored from old kilts they'd found abandoned at Gleneagles. They smiled as often as an ayatollah at a bar-mitzvah and spoke an impenetrable pidgin English, which was replicated by golf-correspondents.

But Seve didn't need to know any kind of English, because the international language of which he was master was spelt H-A-P-P-Y. He spoke many other languages too: the dialects of honour, of dignity, of sportsmanship, of decency, of fair play, of loyalty, of integrity, and in the end, of dauntless, unforgettable, astonishing courage.

In doing so, he rewrote entirely the international image of the Spanish people. Quite simply, there has never been a finer ambassador for either his sport or his country. Good night Seve, and flights of eagles swing thee from thy tee.

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