Commentary

The escape artist

Updated: May 7, 2011, 2:04 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Seve BallesterosJohn Sommers II/Getty ImagesSeve Ballesteros of Spain passed at 54, but we'll never forget his amazing artistry with a golf club.

As it turns out, there was one jam that Seve Ballesteros couldn't escape.

Ballesteros died early Saturday at 54, from complications of a cancerous brain tumor, but I'll never believe it. In 20 years covering him, I never saw a mess Seve couldn't get out of. He made birdies from parking lots, concession stands, bushes, trees, ditches, weeds you could lose an eighth-grader in, ponds, creeks, flower gardens and even women's purses. I saw him hit shots on his knees, on his tiptoes, stooped over, one-legged and one-armed. The man was 80 proof.

If you were within 100 kilometers of him, Seve was the one player you just couldn't miss. A typical morning conversation in the '80s among golf writers went like this:

Me: Looks like Seve's out of it -- 11 back.

You: True, but it's Seve.

Me: Let's go.

You couldn't miss Seve because (A) you never knew what he was going to do next, and (B) since he never hit any fairways, you'd be standing right next to him when he did it.

He could make birdie from under a Renault. He could make par from places where a lot of guys would require a chainsaw.

"Someday," Ballesteros once said, "they'll play without fairways. Just rough and green. Then I'm sure I will have a very good chance."

He made bogeys that were more thrilling than some guys' eagles. But it wasn't so much what he did with the shot but what he did afterward -- leaping, charging, punching unseen enemies in the sky.

Seve was Arnie with an accent. A conquistador in green pants. He was tan and handsome and raw. Emotion poured from his fingernails. He had so many urgent facial expressions, you'd have thought he was on trial.

You never knew what he'd say. Once he had one of his three brothers caddying for him and he hit an awful shot. He was sure he'd been given the wrong club, and he was hot.

"I am very, very angry!" he chirped at the poor guy. "But not at YOU! I do not blame YOU! No, I blame myself (long pause) for PICKING you as my caddy!"

Practically born with a club in his hand, Seve had only a 3-iron for much of his childhood, and he'd play it out of anything. He learned to escape bunkers with that 3-iron, so you can imagine what a wizard he was with a sand wedge. He could get out of a silo with one.

I'll never forget the time we asked him how he managed to four-putt the 16th at the 1988 Masters, where he finished 11th.

He shrugged and said, "I miss. I miss. I miss. I make."

Simple!

Practically born with a club in his hand, Seve had only a 3-iron for much of his childhood, and he'd play it out of anything. He learned to escape bunkers with that 3-iron, so you can imagine what a wizard he was with a sand wedge. He could get out of a silo with one.

We weren't the only ones that loved watching Seve. The greatest players in the world loved it, too.

I remember once Johnny Miller got paired with Seve when Miller was only playing part-time and Seve was still making balata-covered objects appear out of nowhere. It was a blustery day at the British Open, yet Seve shot around even par. Miller couldn't stop talking about it.

"That was one of the most amazing rounds of golf I've ever seen," he gushed. "It was a clinic! If the wind was coming right to left, Seve would carve these perfect 5-yard fades into it. If it was left to right, he'd carve gorgeous draws. The man is a master."

They loved him until they had to play against him, that is. He had such a bloodthirst for match play, it seemed to be all he could do to keep from wrestling you on the first tee.

"I look into their eyes," he once said, "shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.'"

He was an infamous gamesman. At Ryder Cups he was always followed by family members who would jingle the change in their pockets or suddenly come down with whooping cough when it was an American's turn to putt.

He'd stop at nothing to win. At the 1995 Ryder Cup, the American Tom Lehman was thumping Seve in singles and it was driving Seve mad. Lehman lagged a putt up to within six inches and then tapped in, out of turn. That happens approximately 500 times in a tournament, but Seve was suddenly irate. He called over a rules official and insisted Lehman replace his ball and mark it. After a heated debate, Lehman did exactly that.

The reason for all this?

"I wanted to use his mark as my line," Seve said.

Seve was a one-man plague of locusts on the United States. Not only did he revive European golf with his luminescent career, but he campaigned to get the Cup moved to other nations -- like Spain -- and then waged the most outrageous winning captainship there in Ryder Cup history in 1997.

He had certain greens mown -- during the rounds! -- without telling the U.S. side, so that only the European players would realize that green was twice as fast as all the others.

Any time there was a ruling to be made, he was there, barking at officials. He either had a turbo on his golf cart or jiggered the governor, because it was twice as fast as American captain Tom Kite's. Although maybe Kite's seemed slower because it was always bogged down by Michael Jordan or George Bush Sr.

Seve's glory days in golf ended the way you knew they would, con el stupido driver -- going 18 holes and hitting one or two fairways, shooting 75-75 -- 150 on Thursday and Friday with 50 putts. He had the reverse yips and it was over. The Fun Meter was on Empty.

Severiano Ballesteros was the most distinctly original player I ever had the privilege to watch, and the most heart-stopping. He didn't hit a golf ball; he crashed into it. His swing had miles too much movement, but it echoed his beautiful mind, which gave him the greatest imagination for the game in history.

Who would've believed it? Trouble finally got Seve.

Life just got a little duller.


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


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