Monday 23 October 2017

People's champion bequeaths thrilling legacy

Eamonn Sweeney

There was golf before Seve and golf after Seve. He changed everything.

It's 35 years since sports fans woke to surprising Sunday newspaper headlines telling them that an unknown 19-year-old Spaniard was two shots clear going into the final round of the British Open. The tyro got pegged back and finished second behind Johnny Miller but the game would never be the same again.

Young Ballesteros was no flash in the pan. Three years later, he won the Open, heralding the dawn of a new age. That 1979 victory at Royal Lytham and St Annes signalled the end of almost complete American dominance of the sport. Before Seve struck, European golfers had won two of the previous 50 Majors. They would win 13 of the next 25, five of them going to Seve. Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal followed in his wake but it was Seve who dispelled the inferiority complex which had afflicted golfers from this continent when they faced the mighty Yanks.

He was also responsible for the reinvigoration of the Ryder Cup, previously nothing more than a biennial victory procession for the Americans. His topping of the European Order of Merit from 1976 to 1978 made an unassailable case for a European rather than a British and Irish team. It came to pass in 1979. In the era of Kaymer, Karlsson, Jimenez and the Molinaris, it's easy to forget how marginalised a species the continental European golfer was back then. But Seve's 1979 Major win was the first by a continental European since 1907.

His triumph in the following year's Masters was the first by a European of any stripe in that greatest of tournaments. Perhaps Ballesteros relished that win above all others because his delight in besting the Americans was always plainly visible. It added extra electricity to the Ryder Cup where he played an enormous role when Europe won in 1985 and 1987 and retained the trophy with a draw in 1989. He won 11 points from 15 in those matches and his partnership with Jose Maria Olazabal remains the most successful in Cup history.

Ballesteros revelled in the cut and thrust of matchplay, his five World Matchplay titles is a record held jointly with Gary Player, but he was emotionally involved with the European cause like no other player. As captain at Valderrama in 1997, he was like one of those football managers who kick every ball on the sideline, dashing from hole to hole in a buggy as he inspired his team to victory.

He was the people's champion. Purists sometimes tutted over the wayward driving which earned him the disparaging nickname, 'the carpark champion,' after he'd put his tee shot into the titular facility at Lytham in 1979. The rest of us remembered that he'd gone on to make a birdie at that hole. This very unpredictability was what made him so uniquely appealing. You smacked your lips when a drive went askew, knowing there was every likelihood a sublime recovery shot and a monster putt would see our hero break free with one bound. Golf had a rather staid image before Seve came along. But he won the game legions of new fans, thrilled to see a guy who, like Alex Higgins and Jimmy White, seemed to function on pure inspiration.

And it's worth recalling that one of his greatest moments came on these shores. In 1985, he and Bernhard Langer had fought a terrific duel at Royal Dublin in the Irish Open. They went into a play-off where Ballesteros powered in a 35-footer to win the title. Like all his works of genius, it seemed almost impossible beforehand and somehow inevitable afterwards.

Wasn't he really something? A wizard, a true star.

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