Seve’s Gone, But Impact Remains

The Spanish flag at the World Golf Hall of Fame is being flown at half-staff. Just as the scarlet and gold ensigns were at the Spanish Open, the Players Championship and no doubt at golf courses through out Europe.

When the news was announced that Seve Ballesteros had taken an unexpected turn for the worse, shock ran through the tournament at the Real Club de Golf El Prat in Barcelona, changing the event from a celebration to a memorial. Jose Maria Olazabal, who paired with Ballesteros to make the most dominant pairing in Ryder Cup history, and Miguel Angel Jimenez were beside themselves with grief. Their hearts too broken to do anything but weep, the pair refused all efforts to speak of their rounds or their suddenly ill friend. Hours later the most important person in European golf was gone. Dead at the age of 54 after a long battle with brain cancer.

As Lee Westwood said, golf has “lost an inspiration, genius, role model, hero and friend.” Olazabal cried on the practice range the next day.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the Spaniard’s impact on the game. Besides Arnold Palmer, no one had a bigger impact on the sport than Ballesteros. While Gary Player brought top flight golf to nearly every corner and Tiger Woods brought excitement to a sport many thought too boring to warrant attention, Ballesteros inspired an entire continent to reach sports’ greatest heights.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Ballesteros was the nation’s most visible person as it emerged from the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco. “He was a symbol of the new, democratic Spain,” said Zapatero to reporters in Madrid. “Open to the world, without complexes, and capable of being up there with the best in any discipline, including those we had hardly any tradition of, like golf.”

Seve’s success came not just from his immense talent, but from a competitive spirit rarely seen in his sport. As he once famously said of his prematch routine: “I would look my opponent in the eye, shake his hand, pat him on the back and wish him luck all the while thinking, ‘I’m going to bury you.'”

He willed not only himself to victory but forced the best out of those around him. Ballesteros became the driving force behind Europe’s emergence as a Ryder Cup competitor. He scolded his teammates for hanging their heads after losing to the U.S. by a point in 1983. “That was the spark, said Nick Faldo years later. “By 1985, we knew we could do it, we could win the Ryder Cup.”

That burning desire to win didn’t always sit well with opponents or even the European Tour, which he once referred to as the PGA Mafia after refusing to accept a penalty for slow play.

In 1991 Ballesteros referred to the American team as “11 nice guys and Paul Azinger.”

Azinger responded, saying, “The king of gamesmanship doesn’t like me? Good. A feather in my cap.”

Ballesteros would do anything to win. So often did Seve seem to come up with a cough during the Ryder Cup that some opponents carried lozenges in mock support. As European captain for the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama Golf Club in Spain, he had certain greens mowed during the rounds without telling the Americans.

But for all his nastiness at times, his talent was such that even those he upset could not help but admire his game. Ballesteros was the sports greatest scrambler. He routinely turned bad drives into remarkable scoring opportunities. It didn’t matter if he was behind a bush, under a tree, in a parking lot, on a thin lie or in the deepest U.S. Open rough, everyone knew he would find a way to get up and down.

He was Palmer with a tan and Mickelson with a washboard stomach.

Ballesteros won 87 times worldwide and five majors. If not for a bad back and his willingness to carry European golf on his shoulders, he surely would have won more. As Faldo has said, “Even the mightiest can only go so often to the well for inspiration, and the Ryder Cup took plenty from Seve’s life battery.”

The matador can now rest.