Saturday 16 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Beauty of Seve was that he played on pure instinct

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

We'd thieve him back if we could, but the gods are proprietorial with their own. They've had Seve's name-plate tacked onto a locker for some time now and, for all the palpable grief being articulated world-wide, there must be relief, too, that cancer's slow and wretched ransacking of this magnetic man is over.

You always wanted Seve to win golf tournaments the way you always want a movie to have a happy ending. It was claimed that he made the game sexy, but that was a marketing swindle. Golf was never sexy. It has always been too bound up in adherence and stuffy protocol to be anything but a kind of high-octane accountancy.

What Seve did was burn with a fierce independence. He broke the mould. To the naked eye, he swung at a ball the way 'Lugs' Brannigan swung at trouble in an alleyway behind the old Olympic ballroom.

The story is often told of a rather disdainful Tom Weiskopf watching Ballesteros tee off in the '78 Masters at Augusta.

The American represented everything Seve challenged. He was cautious and staid and keen to radiate scepticism for this Spanish kid who'd just won the Greater Greenboro Open, his first PGA Tour event.

As the great golf writer, Peter Dobereiner observed, Seve "swished the club through the ball as if cutting the head from a daisy". The very sound seemed to startle Weiskopf. The trajectory of the ball defeated him.

SWEETEST

"It was the sweetest 300-yard yard drive into a stiff headwind you ever saw," the American -- who followed up by carving his own drive into the trees -- would observe later.

Before Seve, America owned the Majors. The gods of the game almost all played beneath the Stars and Stripes -- Hogan and Snead, Hagan and Sarazen, Nicklaus and Watson. Australian and South African names dipped sporadically into the big stories, but Europe was nowhere. Actually, beyond Britain and Ireland, it scarcely existed.

Ballesteros shouldn't really have been possible then. He learnt the game chipping for peseta sidebets with caddies at the club in Santander, near Bilbao, from where his older brother, Manuel, established himself as a modest tournament professional.

Seve never received formal coaching and never sought it. He saw the game as a puzzle best dealt with on the run and would attack a course, as Jim Murray once wrote, "like a lion going after a zebra". Sometimes he could almost have been in a separate tournament, summoning little miracles of improvisation out of car parks and drop-zones, then striding up to a green as if it was his private property.

He shone for just over a decade and, in that time, was conspicuous by his difference.

Look at any photographs of his breakthrough Open win at Royal Lytham and St Annes in '79 and his understated, navy elegance makes the gallery look like a convergence of pimps. He had matinee-idol looks, a picador's body language and the ability to play off the cuff like nobody the game had seen. And he was just 22.

I remember being on a golf trip in the Canaries once with Christy O'Connor Snr. After a splendid dinner and generous procession of digestifs, we somehow inveigled an impromptu clinic out of the great man.

What followed was astonishing, O'Connor standing in the hotel lobby and swinging a driver with impossibly poetic grace. Time and time again, the club made barely perceptible contact with the carpet, Christy's swing not once making anything but the gentlest kissing sound.

Even at three in the morning, the perfection left us slack-jawed.

Ballesteros once marvelled to his brother about seeing this old Irish golfer with the most "wonderful hands". And of his generation, maybe O'Connor was the nearest thing golf had to a Seve, a player whose game was less a monument to order and repetition than to innate feel.

They were connected by a temper, too, and if this column has a memory of Seve's many visits to our shores -- he won the Irish Open three times -- it is of stewards being pale with dread that the untimely snap of a camera shutter might interrupt the Spaniard mid-swing.

For when Seve glared, wise people ran for cover.

In '93, I walked every step of one of his worst days as a Ryder Cup player and subsequently received a letter from an acquaintance of the late US comedian, Bob Hope. Hope's wife -- Dolores -- had, apparently, been moved by the sense of requiem articulated in the article.

That day, Seve was beaten 3&2 by Jim Gallagher Jnr and went down playing a brand of chaotic, submissive golf that demoralised all who witnessed it. By now, his game had been savagely undermined by chronic back trouble and he was six-over for the front nine, five shots poorer than the next worst player.

Gallagher had inordinate length off the tee, but a suspiciously wooden short game. Yet, he won almost as he pleased. I described it afterwards as a case of "the conquistador" being "mugged by a plump, Missouri teddy bear."

That seemed the end for Seve and the Ryder Cup. We didn't know, of course, that he would play two years later at Oak Hill and then captain Europe in '97 at Valderrama. Both times Europe won.

And we certainly didn't imagine that he'd still have a voice in the European team room, albeit by video link, 17 years later at Celtic Manor. That was our innocence.

In '93, Dolores Hope expressed an odd condition. Here was an American who found herself preoccupied with Seve and the image of a beautiful athlete in decline to such a degree that the US victory had been dulled by the melancholy of Ballesteros' struggle.

It wasn't typically American but, in many ways, maybe that was Seve's gift. He transcended stereotype. If anything, he became even more adored by people the world over, the further his game deteriorated.

Funny, he once lamented an absence of recognition in his homeland, claiming that the only way he might get noticed was "if I win the Grand Slam and then drop dead on the 18th green".

He shouldn't have worried. If Spain had its eyes closed, the rest of the world was lovesick.

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