A dasher departs, quietly

Golf

A dasher departs, quietly

eye-catching: Severiano Ballesteros was blessed with uncommon intensity and had a brilliant short-game. AFP

Seve Ballesteros, the charismatic Spanish golfer who won the Masters twice and the British Open three times besides helping propel Europe’s rise in the Ryder Cup competition with the United States, was one of the most gifted players to have graced the game.

Ballesteros, who died on Saturday, had surgery for a cancerous brain tumor in October 2008 and had been cared for at his home in the coastal town of Pedrena, where he had received an outpouring of get-well wishes from fans worldwide.

Ballesteros was only 19 and virtually unknown when he was thrust into the golf spotlight in July 1976. He was on the final hole of the British Open at Royal Birkdale, on England’s western coast, when he hit a brilliant chip shot between two bunkers that landed four feet from the cup. He then sank his putt to tie Jack Nicklaus for second place behind Johnny Miller after having led for three rounds.

That daring chip, and the shots before it that rescued him after wild drives into dunes and bushes, caught the golf world’s attention and defined the kind of game that made Ballesteros one of the finest players of his era.

With a passion for perfection, an uncommon intensity and a brilliant short game, Ballesteros won five major championships in 10 years. At Augusta National in 1980, he became the first European and, at 23, the youngest player to win the Masters. (Tiger Woods broke that record in 1997 when he won the Masters at 21.) Ballesteros won the Masters again in 1983, captured the British Open in 1979, 1984 and 1988, and won the World Match Play Championship five times.

“I think he comes as close to a complete player as anybody I’ve ever seen,” his fellow golfer Ben Crenshaw told Sports Illustrated in 1985. “He can hit every shot in the bag and do it with the style and look of a champion.”

Ballesteros won 45 events on the European Tour, and he was its earnings leader six times. He was in the vanguard of world-class Spanish golfers, preceding Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia. But he saw limited action in the United States, winning four PGA Tour events in addition to his Masters triumphs.

Ballesteros was something of a golf magician. In addition to his miraculous recoveries from wild drives, he could balance three golf balls on top of one another, a favourite trick. Handsome with a swashbuckling style, he was a favourite of the television cameras, as Frank Hannigan, senior executive director of the US Golf Association, remarked at the 1985 Masters.

“He’s made for this medium,” Hannigan said. “They come in close for a shot, and they can’t miss. You can see his thought processes. For me, he is more fun to watch than any player in the world.”

Severiano Ballesteros (pronounced buy-yuh-STAY-ros) was born in Pedrena, where his father, a former Spanish-champion rower, was a farmer. His three older brothers, Baldomero, Manuel and Vicente, were golf pros, as was his uncle Ramon Sota. As a boy, he batted stones with a homemade golf club on the beaches near his family’s stone farmhouse.

When he was 8, his brother Manuel gave him a 3-iron, and he began to caddie at a prestigious golf club in Santander, near his home. He won the caddie championship there at age 12 with a 79, sneaked onto the course at night to practice his shots, quit school at 14 and turned pro at 16.

Ballesteros won his first major when he captured the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes in England, and it was there, on the 16th hole of the final round, that he made one of his most storied shots. With his ball in a parking lot, he hit a sand wedge to the green, then sank a 20-foot putt for birdie and went on to win by three shots, besting Nicklaus. In this case, however, it wasn’t a matter of Ballesteros’ being out of control on a drive. He had deliberately hit to the parking lot to take advantage of the prevailing winds.

Ballesteros led or was tied for the lead after each round in capturing the 1980 Masters, but he ran into trouble late on the final day, three-putting the 10th hole, hitting twice into Rae’s Creek and sending his drive on the 17th hole onto the seventh green. At one point, he was only two shots ahead, but he won by four, a margin he reprised in winning the 1983 Masters.

Apart from his individual achievements, Ballesteros was a leading force in Europe’s emergence on the Ryder Cup scene after players from the continent were allowed to join with British and Irish players beginning in 1979. He played on eight Ryder Cup squads, including the 1987 team that achieved the Europeans’ first triumph in America, at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. He won 22-1/2 points from his 37 matches overall. He was the non-playing captain of Europe’s team in 1997, when the Valderrama Golf Club on Spain’s Costa del Sol played host to the event, the first time the Ryder Cup had been held on the continent.

Ballesteros was a master of concentration. “I’m so deeply immersed in my game plan and my play that I’m virtually oblivious to outside sights and sounds,” he wrote in his 1991 book “Natural Golf,” written with John Andrisani.  “I never hear my playing partner’s clubs rattling, and I rarely ever hear the gallery applauding. I’m grinding as hard as I can inside my bubble.”

Ballesteros’ last European Tour victory came at the Spanish Open in 1995; a chronic back problem curtailed his play after that. His biggest disappointment was his failure to win a US Open championship, his often erratic play proving costly on the customarily narrow fairways and high roughs. Ballesteros was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999 and retired in an emotional news conference at Carnoustie before the 2007 British Open. In recent years, he ran a golf-course design business.

He learned he had a brain tumour after fainting at Madrid’s international airport while waiting to board a flight to Germany on October 6, 2008. The following March, in an interview with Marca, a Spanish sports newspaper, he spoke openly about his cancer and the 300,000 get-well cards he had received from around the world as he underwent chemotherapy.

“I’m not called Seve Ballesteros,” the paper quoted him as saying, “I’m called Seve Mulligan, because I’ve had the luck to be given a mulligan, which in golf is a second chance.”

In 1988, when he won a major for the last time, Ballesteros displayed the elements that had been his trademark: He was erratic but overwhelmingly brilliant. He had two bogeys in one 11-hole stretch of the final round of the British Open, but he also had six birdies and an eagle in that span, finishing with a 65 to beat Nick Price by two shots. On the 16th hole, he hit a 9-iron from 135 yards that stopped three inches from the cup.
“It was the best round of my life so far,” Ballesteros said. “That shot at 16 was one of my two best.”

The victory came at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the site of that memorable approach shot in his first British Open nine years earlier.  Holding the champion’s silver cup aloft, Ballesteros said, “This time I didn’t hit from the parking lot.”


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