As 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 â€” we hope and pray for Mr. Ballesteros’ speedy recovery â€” 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 â€” 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.
If 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 â€” 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.