Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 8, 2011

Remembering Seve’s Passion

One legitimate complaint that golf fans have about today’s pro tours is that their very success has made life too comfortable for the golfers. On the PGA Tour the 125th man on last year’s money list, the last to automatically qualify to play this year, earned more than three-quarters of a million dollars, and that’s just in official prize money. Endorsements and payments from sponsors add to that total. It’s possible to earn a very, very good living without ever coming close to winning. As a result some golfers seem content to play for a check rather than for victory.

If any golfer was ever the antithesis of such complacency, it was Seve Ballesteros. Ballesteros, who lost a long battle to brain cancer early Saturday, brought passion, intensity, and a fierce desire to win to every tournament he played. Flamboyant, charismatic, and movie star handsome, he was a swashbuckler with a five-iron instead of a sword. Born into relative poverty in Pedrena, Spain, as a boy he began to caddie at a nearby private club. He would sneak onto the course at night to practice, and won the caddie championship at age 12. Four years later he turned pro.

He won his first major at the 1979 Open Championship; three years after a runner-up finish at the same tournament first brought him to the attention of fans. That victory was the tournament where his imagination and creativity, as well as his fabled short game, first began to build his legend. On the 16th hole in the final round, Ballesteros purposely drove well wide of the fairway, his ball landing in a parking lot. He did so because he wanted to be able to play his second shot from a particular angle on the open, windswept links course. His famous sand wedge from the car park landed safely on the green, leading to a birdie and an eventual three-stroke victory.

He would go on to dominate the European Tour for the next decade, winning 50 times and leading the money list for six seasons. He won the Open Championship twice more, as well as two Masters. When he captured his first green jacket in 1980 at age 23, he was the youngest winner ever, a mark that stood until Tiger Woods’ first victory nearly two decades later.

Unfortunately for American golf fans, Ballesteros limited his appearances in the U.S. He was often at odds with the leadership of the PGA Tour over the requirement that Tour members had to play a minimum of fifteen events. But fans in this country certainly got to see him play in the biennial Ryder Cup, often to their dismay.

More than anyone, Ballesteros made the Ryder Cup the exciting and tense competition that it is today. It was he who was most insistent that the matches should be between a team from the U.S. and one from all of Europe, not just Great Britain. That expansion turned a regular American rout into an evenly matched event. They United States team had won the Cup ten times in a row, and seventeen out of eighteen, when the Great Britain and Ireland team was expanded to include the rest of Europe. Since then, Team Europe holds a narrow 9-7 edge.

Given the chance to play for the Cup, Ballesteros excelled. In 37 matches he won 22 ½ points. In the team matches he and fellow countryman Jose Maria Olazabal were a natural and dominant pairing. Nicknamed the Spanish Armada, the two compiled a record of 11-2-2. The 1987 matches at Muirfield Village were typical, with Ballesteros and Olazabal winning 3 out of 4 matches and Seve winning his Sunday singles match as Europe won for the first time on American soil. A decade later Ballesteros was the obvious choice to be the non-playing team captain when the matches were played in continental Europe for the first time. He managed his team to victory at Valderrama Golf Club in his native Spain.

Much has been made this year of the rise of European golfers, with the top three places and six of the top ten in this week’s World Golf Rankings held by golfers from the other side of the Atlantic. But before Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer climbed to the top of the standings, Ballesteros was ranked #1 for 61 weeks. Since the rankings began, only three guys named Woods, Norman, and Faldo have held the top spot longer.

Likewise, before Matteo Manaserro celebrated his 18th birthday by winning for the second time on the European Tour last month, Ballesteros won four times in 1978, giving him eight victories while still just 21 years old; and before Nick Faldo or Bernhard Langer became the next Europeans to win multiple majors, Ballesteros won five.

For all that European golf has become, first there was Seve. If golfers on the PGA Tour quite literally owe part of each check they cash to Tiger Woods, so golfers on the European Tour owe much to Ballesteros.

By coincidence they were playing the Spanish Open this week, at the very course in Barcelona where Ballesteros claimed his final European Tour victory in 1995, his career shortened by debilitating back problems. Before play began in Saturday’s third round, the players gathered for a moment of silence. Afterwards Olazabal wept on the shoulder of Miguel Angel Jimenez. From Barcelona to Charlotte, North Carolina at the PGA Tour stop, and from all around the world, tributes have poured in. It brings to mind late 2008, when Ballesteros received the dread diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor after fainting at the Madrid airport. After undergoing surgery and beginning chemotherapy, Ballesteros was deluged with more than 300,000 cards and letters from fans of all ages and nationalities.

He will be remembered for his major championships and for his seemingly magical short game. But more than that, he should be remembered and celebrated for his intensity, his determination, and most of all for his passion for the game. He wore it openly. It showed on his face. It was a dark and brooding scowl when things did not go well, but in moments of triumph it was a picture of transcendent joy.

Perhaps the signature moment was in 1984 at St. Andrews. Ballesteros stroked a curling 15-foot putt on the 18th green. The ball paused on the edge of the hole, and then disappeared into the cup, assuring him of his second win at the Open and fourth major. Ballesteros screamed in triumph and pumped his fist. Then, like a triumphant matador in the center of the ring, bouncing on the balls of his feet, fist still pumping over and over again, he turned slowly in all directions, a wide and infectious grin splitting his face, as the fans, his fans, roared their acclaim. No, Seve was never interested in just cashing a check. Every time he teed it up, he was playing to win.

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