The Significance of Seve

Seve Ballesteros is in the self-described “fight of his life” against a malignant brain tumor.

Thrash TalkAs anyone remotely attuned to the goings on of the world of golf is surely aware, Seve Ballesteros is in the self-described “fight of his life” against a malignant brain tumor. The Spaniard has had multiple surgeries within the past few weeks. The most recent, a six and a half hour procedure, occurred Friday. As we collectively wait for relevant updates from the medical staff at La Paz hospital, where the golfer is presently in “stable but serious” condition, it seems fitting to both express the obvious — we hope and pray for Mr. Ballesteros’ speedy recovery — and to discuss the significance of the man from Pedrena, Spain who was such a dynamic figure in the world of golf from the late 1970s until the early 90s.

Arguably, in a cursory glance at Ballesteros’ career, the most impressive statistic is his record in Ryder Cup play. Seve amassed 20 wins during his tenure with the European Team, along with 15 ties. Punctuating this history of exceptional play in the event are his achievements when paired with fellow Spainard José Maria Olazabal, an incredible 11-2-2 record. Beyond mere statistics, however, is the recollection of how the man played the event — with paramount levels of charisma and passion. His approach, it might be said, is emblematic of the prototypical European attitude towards the tournament which has contributed, quite obviously, to their domination from 1985 until the most recent contest at Valhalla. In addition to excelling as a player, Ballesteros captained the European team to victory in the 1997 contest at Valderrama. The list of golfers who have been both successful Ryder Cup players and Captains is a short one, indeed.

SeveIf we think of the quintessential European Ryder Cup player over the past ten years, most likely Sergio Garcia comes to mind. It’s no stretch to say there is a clear link between his playing style and passion and that of Seve Ballesteros, if for no other reason that the Ballesteros to Olazabal to Garcia connection. More than this, however, is the fact that Ballesteros, although significant here in the United States, and across the whole of Europe, is essentially a national hero in Spain. Sergio, then, for all his flaws and foibles, is in a very real way the product of the inspiration of the golfing great in the same way that Tiger Woods is endemically linked with Jack Nicklaus.

On the subject of Nicklaus and Ballesteros, the ’86 Masters is a component, perhaps infamously, of the Spaniard’s legacy, which includes two victories at that event and five major victories overall. Who can forget his brilliance on Sunday – the eagle at 13, coupled with the expectation that the tournament belonged entirely to him — or his eventual collapse two holes later, where a terribly struck approach ended up in the water. This performance aside, Ballesteros belongs to a truly elite fraternity: that of multiple winners of golf’s major championships. If winning a major is, as the platitude is so often expressed, the ultimate test in golf, then Seve passed this test. Let’s not forget, too, he was the youngest Masters champion at the time with his victory in 1980 (23 years old), a feat which only Tiger Woods has been able to surpass.

In evaluating the entirely unquantifiable “significance to the game of golf,” Ballesteros, with his creative play and overflowing charisma, is reminiscent of Arnold Palmer. Palmer, of course, with improvement in playing ability occurring along with the rise in televised coverage of golfing events, is the standard for this sort of base appeal and ability to inspire enthusiasm in a gallery – but Seve is another incarnation of this golfing typology. Perhaps reckless, always entertaining, flamboyant and showy, Ballestros style of play during his heyday is a far cry from Hoganite conceptions of the way in which the game should be played, but the mass appeal was, and is, undeniable.

Ballesteros, too, it would seem, is emblematic of the international presence which has been growing on the PGA Tour since the arrival of Gary Player with his win at the 1961 Masters. He is also symbolic of the player who splits his time between the European Tour and the PGA, such as Paul Casey or Henrik Stenson today (and to a lesser degree, Ernie Els or Sergio Garcia, who seem to play predominately on the PGA Tour). In short he was able to both bring an international flavor and flair to the PGA Tour while remaining a truly international superstar, with a wide following across the planet. During his career, which only formally ended in 2007, Ballesteros won 94 times around the world, albeit with only 9 victories on the PGA Tour. As we hear so often, golf is an international game. With the exception of Gary Player, as previously mentioned, no one is more symbolic or representative of this fact than Seve Ballesteros. The outpouring of support from across the globe in recent weeks, as news of his plight has been circulated, speaks to this fact as well.

Perhaps, Seve best represents both the fickle nature of golf and life. At risk of overextension, it’s no secret the Ballesteros, who was once one of the most dominant players in the game, has struggled with his swing in the recent past, to the extent that although he has the desire to play on tour, he feels that he is unable to compete. It is easy for us to forget, with all he has accomplished in his career, that Ballesteros is only 51 years old. He has three children, the youngest of whom is only 14. Just last year he was reportedly given a “clean bill of health,” after visiting the doctor regarding concerns about his heart. Change is an absolute, to be sure. Seve, the golfer and the man, is an illustration of this principle. Really, we can only hope that things change for the better. We hope that Mr. Ballesteros makes a full recovery, as well.

6 thoughts on “The Significance of Seve”

  1. A good article of the great man. I grew up through the late 70s/early 80s as a junior learning to love the game and Seve was a real trailblazer. I have many good memories of late nights watching the final holes from Augusta and Seve has a lot to do with my long term addiction to the game.

    His Ryder cup legacy from a European perspective is immense and he’s one of the reasons why the competition is just that; a true competition again instead of a regular, biennial walkover for the U.S.A.

    He was well known for outrageous shots, recoveries, skill and a wonderful putting touch. He was the first to attempt the drive of the green on the 10th at the Belfry, usually with an outrageous twirl to finish his follow-through. I remember him being dormy 1 down to Arnold Palmer in the World Matchplay at Wentworth – Arnie is on the green in 2 at the 18th, Seve hits a tree ~80 yards short of the green; Seve gets a short iron out and hits a pitch and run straight into the hole for an eagle; Arnie 2 putts, all square and Seve wins the match in a extra holes.

    In a modern world that too often uses the word “great” to describe all and sundry, Seve is exactly that; truly great. Best wishes for an eventual recovery.

  2. What a great post!!! Like spaniard I can tell you, that Seve shown us what is golf about!!!
    To me Seve is a hero, no doubt about it!! but I am a golfer, and there is not so many people that follows golf in Spain, actually I think Seve is more often seen as a hero in England than in Spain…

  3. To me, Seve has always been Europe’s Walter Hagen, rather than Arnie. He certainly always had a few bad shots in a round (Sir Walter expected them) but as often he would make a remarkable recovery, and often with the same swashbuckling attitude presented by Hagen. Walter Hagen was also spearheading the public’s changing attitude towards professional golfers, Seve did that as well, albeit on a different level. Before Seve, European golfers were grudgingly accepting that Europe had become a second rate continent compared to US pros. In Walter’s days the opposite was true, Vardon, Braid, Taylor and Ted Ray dominated tournament golf, but by winning the Open Championship, a paradigm shift towards the US became self-evident. When Ballesteros won the Masters, he showed that European golfers could win the one major that had alluded them so far. Severiano Ballesteros did for European golf what Walter Hagen did for American golf. For that his legacy will be as everlasting as the Haig’s is.

  4. Superb post.
    I agree with Ovidiov.
    It is a shame that he is not actually revered as a national hero in his own country. In Britain he seen as a ‘Golfing God’. If it wasn’t for Seve the European Tour would still be operating in the dark ages.
    My thoughts are with him and his family.

  5. A piece on Seve from Jaime Diaz about a year or two ago was fascinating to read. When you read about Lee Trevino, often many of the same adjectives used to describe Seve are applied to Lee: creative, a wizard, brilliantly intuitive player, fearless competitor. In the Diaz piece, Trevino said (paraphrasing) “I could outwork him, but I never, ever had anything close to his talent level.”

    What I hope we can remember always about Ballesteros is that: maybe the greatest natural talent ever. It didn’t last as long as some of us might have liked, and he may have given a few away out of sloppiness or mental errors, but as far as controlling a golf ball, we may never see anyone like him.

    It sounds silly not to rank Tiger as the best in everything when it comes to golf, but if there is any player in history who could be argued to have more talent than Tiger, it would be Seve.

    We should celebrate him and his life, now, as much as possible; we won’t have him much longer.

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