Commentary

Regardless of the odds, Seve will fight

Originally Published: October 12, 2008
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

About half a lifetime ago, Seve Ballesteros was on the practice green at Augusta National Golf Club when a local TV reporter called over to him. "Steve, hey Steve, over here," the talking head shouted. Ballesteros at first ignored the calls, then rose to his full height, strode to the edge of the green and in a calm but firm voice said to the man calling him Steve: "My name is Severiano Ballesteros, and your name is …" -- and then he used a word best not repeated here.

Career Highlights

• Won 87 worldwide titles, including nine on the PGA Tour.

• Became a five-time major winner, taking the Masters twice ('80, '83) and the British Open three times ('79, '84, '88).

• Played in eight Ryder Cups, compiling a record of 20-12-5. Captained Europe to a 1997 Ryder Cup win at Valderrama.

• Retired from competitive golf in 2007.

-- ESPN research

The incident tells a lot about Ballesteros. He is a man whose pride is as ferocious as his skill with a golf club and as relentless as his competitive fire. When the rumor was confirmed Sunday that the 51-year-old Spaniard indeed had a brain tumor, the seriousness of which will be determined in a biopsy Tuesday, it served as a shocking reminder of our mortality, even for the once-seeming Superman who put the entire continent of Europe on his back and dragged it to golfing parity with the Americans.

It was in large part because of Seve that Europe was added to Great Britain and Ireland to take on the United States in the Ryder Cup in 1979, the year he won his first Open Championship. (Sorry, folks -- can't call it the "British Open" when writing about Ballesteros. It's about European pride.)

And it was in large part because of Ballesteros' anger at the 15-tournament-minimum rule required to be a PGA Tour member that he stayed in Europe, keeping a generation of the best players in the world with him -- guys such as Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

If Arnold Palmer gets credit for bringing the Open Championship back to major championship status by traveling to Britain for the 1960 edition, Ballesteros gets at least equal credit for making the Ryder Cup relevant again and for expanding the borders of golf beyond the United States and Britain to Europe and eventually Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

Like Palmer, Ballesteros is the entire package. At the top of his game he was not only the best player in the world -- three Open Championships and two Masters from 1979 through 1988 -- but he was also a personality impossible to ignore. He disarms with movie-star good looks and more attitude than anyone could ask for. Too bad he and Anthony Kim couldn't go at it in a Ryder Cup match.

Back in the mid-1990s, when Tom Lehman was trying to escape being a constant also-ran, he talked to me about the importance confidence plays in being a winner. Lehman said you can tell a lot about a player by reading his body language.

"Take Ballesteros," Lehman said. "Seve's body language says, 'No matter what godforsaken place I have hit my golf ball to, the next shot is going to be the greatest shot you have ever seen.'"

Remember, Seve is a guy who won an Open Championship by making a birdie from the car park at Royal Lytham.

Lehman saw one of the most remarkable displays of Ballesteros' confidence in their singles match at Oak Hill near Rochester, N.Y., during the 1995 Ryder Cup. They were the opening pairing Sunday morning, and I walked the first nine holes with them. It was the most entertaining nine holes of golf I have ever seen.

Seve missed the first fairway about 30 yards left and lost the hole. Lehman split the fairway on No. 2 and Ballesteros missed by 20 yards, to the right this time. All Seve could do was smash an 8-iron over the trees short of the green. Lehman played his approach to about 15 feet.

Seve had to pitch over a bunker to a short-side pin -- an extremely difficult up-and-down. He skipped the "up" part and just went down, holing the pitch for birdie. A shaken Lehman missed his birdie putt and the match was all square.

On the fourth hole -- a par-5 -- Ballesteros hit a tree off the tee. I paced it off: The ball went 92 yards. He then hit a 3-wood followed by another 3-wood, which found the green, and he 2-putted for a routine par that halved the hole. On another par-4 on the front side, Seve missed the fairway so far right that he was over the hazard.

I kept thinking Ballesteros was one great birdie away from totally unraveling Lehman's head. Lehman was playing brilliantly and couldn't shake a guy who couldn't find a fairway. But for all his magic, Ballesteros couldn't break Lehman and ended up losing 4 and 3. He lost, however, only because Lehman played great -- not because Ballesteros gave up.

At an Open Championship about 15 years ago, Seve came into the interview room. A radio reporter arrived late and didn't get his tape recorder onto the table in front of Ballesteros, so he crouched on the floor in front of the table.

At one point Seve heard the voice he couldn't see say, "Seve, what were you thinking when you were in trouble on No. 14?" Seve answered, "I was not in trouble on No. 14." The disembodied voice persisted: "You were in the bunker on 14." To which Seve replied, "I was in the bunker but I was not in trouble. I am a good bunker player."

Curious by this point, Ballesteros leaned forward, looked down at the man and asked, "Are you a good bunker player?" The reporter confessed he is not, to which Seve responded, "Then I see why you asked the question."

Seve was perhaps never in more Seve mode than at the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama in his native Spain when he was the captain of the victorious European team. It was as if there were a half-dozen Seves. He seemed to be everywhere, popping up out of nowhere in his cart.

That was not a Ryder Cup week without its problems: brutal rain storms, a one-day strike by the national police and luggage that did not always arrive with its passengers. During the first news conference of the week, Dai Davies, who was a wonderfully curmudgeonly writer for the Guardian, a British paper, raised his hand to ask a question.

"Seve," Dai intoned with more than a touch of irritation in his voice, "have you seen my luggage?"

Not missing a beat, Ballesteros answered with a question: "What airline did you fly?"

"British Air," Davies said, to which Seve shrugged and said, "Not my problem then."

Left unsaid was Seve's belief that if Dai had flown a Spanish airline there would have been no problem.

Seve Ballesteros is one of those extremely rare people who are larger than life. He still lives that way and he always played that way. He now faces a battle more serious and more out of his control than any he has ever faced on a golf course.

But somehow, a sneaking suspicion surfaces: His pride, his confidence and yes, even his arrogance, will carry him to another victory. His name is Severiano Ballesteros and he has given golf, and all of us, far too much to have it end far too early.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of GolfWorld magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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