Wednesday 17 January 2018

Swashbuckling Spaniard was a man of the people

Seve was a genius on the golf course and a complex character off it, says Robert Green

While it was his greatness and influence as a golfer that established Seve Ballesteros in the pantheon of sporting giants, it was the manner in which he went about his business that captivated the world.

It wasn't merely what he won. It was how he played. He made birdies from locations where anyone else would have been content with a bogey; he would hit great shots and bad shots, not only in the same round, but on the same hole.

This mercurial trait was also part of his personality. He was a complex character -- charming and manipulative, gregarious and withdrawn, open and suspicious, generous and mean. The sparkling eyes and infectious smile enchanted everyone he came into contact with. On the other hand, as observed by his first biographer, Dudley Doust, his mind could be a "private forest, a place impenetrable, indeed dangerous to others".

The first occasion I spent any length of time with Seve was in Dubai in February 1990, as part of a team shooting a short-game instruction video.

The first thing we noticed was that we'd got the timing wrong. Because he'd not been on tour for a few months, Seve's English was horribly rusty. The second thing was his sense of competitiveness. He demonstrated to me the "parachute shot", which Phil Mickelson has since made routine. Seve placed my body and the club in the necessarily exaggerated positions and told me to have a go. My second effort finished six inches from the hole. He'd not come that close himself. He took the club back and holed his next one.

The extraordinary imagination, delicacy of touch and range of shots around the green that he possessed were legendary, a consequence of learning the fundamentals of the game with just one club, and that a three-iron. "He was a genius," said Tiger Woods on Seve's formal retirement from competitive golf in 2007, "probably the most creative player who's ever played the game."

One year, I was in Spain for a magazine photoshoot to feature this particular talent. At the time, Seve had a running joke with me based on the (false) assumption that I had only one jacket, a blue one. I was never sure whether he thought I was impecunious or had a one-colour fetish, but he turned up this day with a pure silk, olive-green Hugo Boss number.

"Here," he said, "another colour for you." Boss was his sponsor, so I was sure he hadn't paid for it, but he didn't have to do this. I still have the jacket. I always will.

Another year, I had dinner with him at the French Open. Seve was notoriously tight when it came to paying his caddies, but he insisted on dealing with this, even though he surely realised I could claim the cost on expenses. The proprietor then said it was on the house. It would not have happened the other way around.

I spent most time with Seve between 2000 and 2003, working on his autobiography, a project we not only failed to deliver once -- we managed the trick again, to the chagrin of the publisher who had twice publicised its imminent arrival. This was the Seve it was preferable not to encounter, the man of whom one of his coaches, Mac O'Grady, when explaining their split, said: "I finally found someone more neurotic than me." Seve eventually published his book in 2007.

More happily, the memories I chiefly retain are ones such as the meal in a restaurant in his home village of Pedrena, where the geese we ate were the ones he had shot, and the football match we attended at Racing Santander. Seve wasn't cloistered in some executive box. He had a season ticket with the fans; amid his people.

Seve was also at ease among the media. They loved his golf and his sense of mischief, and the fact he didn't duck a question. Why would he? He was fireproof, the best in the world, and he knew it. "Controversy can be a good thing," he said. "It's boring if everyone thinks the same." The appreciation was reciprocated. At the British Open in 1992, the week Nick Faldo thanked the press "from the heart of my bottom", Seve expressed his gratitude to golf writers "for making me more famous than I really am".

The affection for Seve meant the press never delved into stories about his eager pursuit of women who were not his wife, which contributed to the divorce from the one who was, Carmen Botin, mother of his three children.

And the media was gentler with him than it would have been for any equivalent sporting figure when, in 2003, his behaviour at times was an unappealing mixture of the vainglorious and the quixotic as he upbraided tour officials if they dared to question his slow play and then accused the European Tour of being "nearly like a Mafia" -- unfortunately, being in Italy when he said it. As always, you could see the grounds for his consternation. As often, he didn't help his cause by the way he conducted his grievance.

From the clubhouse at Pedrena, the golf course where, in the 1960s, a small boy named Severiano Ballesteros was introduced to the game he was to embellish so marvellously, you can see the house where he had lived since 1994. He was famous throughout the world, but within a thousand metres are the places where Seve's livelihood effectively started and where his life ended. His story endures.

Robert Green is editor in chief of Golf International and author of Seve: Golf's Flawed Genius

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