Cooney and Black

I approached Seve to gauge his reaction to an 80-plus score. ‘Well, my friend,’ he said, ‘I just have a sheet day at the office. You no’ have sheet days, too?”

Seve Ballesteros

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IN truth, he was not the greatest golfer of all-time. Indeed, one might even be pushed to describe him as the finest of his generation.

But if Severiano Ballesteros was not the most polished performer of his age, he was certainly the most captivating and charismatic. No player – with perhaps the exception of Arnold Palmer – did more to enhance golf’s popularity.

He was quite simply a man of the people; more popular than Tiger Woods could ever hope to be, Seve held the fans transfixed. They loved him and his swashbuckling approach to a game that used to be seen as the prerogative of the middle classes.

Seve was a working-class hero. The son of a Basque farmer of no great means, he was largely self-taught, learning the game while playing on the beach near his home in the village of Pedrena, in northern Spain.

The youngest of five sons – one died in childhood – he came from golfing stock and his maternal uncle Ramon Sota was Spanish professional champion four times, also finishing sixth in the Masters tournament in 1965. Seve’s surviving brothers also became professional golfers. But there was only ever one Seve, the man generally regarded as the greatest Continental European golfer of all-time.

Winner of 90 titles world-wide and a record 50 on the European Tour, he garnered five majors: the Open three times and the Masters twice.

How many more might he have won had he instilled a little more discipline into his game at the expense of a swashbuckling approach? Very probably none, for it was his unique, often entirely off-the-cuff, thrilling, dramatically exciting style of play that made him the player he was.

A winner of at least one European Tour title for 17 consecutive years between 1976 and 1992, Seve was a leading figure not only in golf but in the world of sport in general from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.

He was also responsible for transforming the Ryder Cup, which had been in grave danger of losing all appeal, given the Americans’ domination of the biennial event, as Europe’s inspiring talisman.

How sad, then, that arguably the most charismatic and best-loved golfer of all-time died at the age of just 54, in May 2011, after the diagnosis of a malignant brain tumour three years earlier.

But Seve’s memory will live on for generations to come, not least in the excellent biopic of his life released earlier this year.

Seve The Movie is a wonderful tribute to a remarkable man who could also, on occasion, prove difficult, moody and even downright rude, but who always retained the ability to win over the vast majority of his detractors.

Blessed with swarthy film-star looks, a winning smile, an endearing accent, greatly exaggerated Manuel-style broken English, and a god-given talent and gift to entertain like few others, it was always relatively easy to forgive Seve his transgressions.

There are moments in the movie when he comes across as verging on arrogant, for example, when he is asked during an interview to justify his demands for appearance money in exchange for his presence at certain tournaments.

He answers that he has dedicated his life to golf and is responsible for the dramatic upsurge in attendances, so why shouldn’t he share in the increased riches? Why not, indeed?

Film critic Jason Solomons, writing in the Mail on Sunday, declared: “Seve will make you laugh, cheer and cry.” It does in roughly equal measures.

The scene near the end – previously unseen – when his great friend and Ryder Cup team-mate Jose Maria Olazabal presents him with the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award for the second time, is especially moving.

Not well enough to travel to the annual bash, Seve, looking frail but still displaying an indomitable spirit, appears live on camera from his home to express his gratitude to his thousands of fans in Britain and does so in a thoroughly polished manner.

But off camera he is seen sobbing into Olazabal’s shoulder in an outpouring of emotion that brings an immediate lump to the throat.

I also found myself becoming angry watching a rerun of Seve’s initial Open triumph at Royal Lytham in 1979, when two of his brothers ran on to the 18th green to embrace him in his moment of triumph.

There, doing their damndest to block the brothers’ progress was the late George Simms, the R&A’s officious and over-bearing press officer, and that organisation’s equally arrogant then secretary, Keith Mackenzie.

Thank god people like that no longer lord it over us mere mortals now that golf has become a less elitist pastime.

But my personal memories of Seve are almost all good. I recall his sense of humour when I approached him during the Scottish Open at Gleneagles, without the support of any colleagues, to gauge his reaction to an 80-plus score.

Fearing the worst, I was relieved to be told: ‘Well, my friend, I just have sheet day at the office. You no’ have sheet days, too?’

Later, sat in the media centre typing away furiously, I was suddenly aware of a figure standing directly behind me appearing to be reading my words. ‘Ah,’ said the voice, ‘you are also having a sheet day!’

There was also the occasion at the Irish Open at Ballybunion in 2000 as I was leaving the course on a warm early July evening, and I spotted a lone figure on the practice range.

It was the once great Seve – plagued by back problems and no longer capable of offering a worthwhile challenge – hitting balls. He appeared to have nowhere else to go and the memory of that sad sight has stayed with me.

Seve had a dark side and, in his later years, often cut a despairing, lonely figure with no apparent meaningful purpose to his life. Without golf and the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd, it meant little, it seemed.

The movie tends to skirt round that darker side, but it is an excellent tribute to a legend born to win and one I thoroughly recommend.

I also feel a need to point followers of cooneyandblack.com in the direction of two excellent festive buys for sports lovers.

One is “Showdown”, the inside story of the Gleneagles Ryder Cup, by the BBC’s golf correspondent Iain Carter, and the other is “In Search of Duncan Ferguson”, the life and crimes of a footballing enigma, by Alan Pattullo, the Scotsman’s excellent wordsmith.

You won’t be disappointed by the content of either of these well-researched, entertaining hardbacks.

 

 

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