A Final Visit
Few players matched Ballesteros' charisma, on and off the golf course.
Seve Ballesteros is gone, and the numbness persists. Even though the brain cancer that was discovered in 2008 had given the world time to prepare, and even though his last major victory took place more than two decades ago, the Spaniard's death at 54 remains hard to process. The day after, the tributes poured in, but most were too general or scattered; words failed under the lingering shock. Nick Faldo broke down on the air. Fred Couples, the man who hates the telephone, nevertheless called in to the Golf Channel and struggled. Even Lee Trevino was at a loss. "Ah," he sighed from his home in North Dallas. "What can you say?"
Except for Young Tom Morris, none of the game's giants has ever died of natural causes at a younger age. That Ballesteros' life was cut short even more prematurely than his playing career seals his complicated legacy as one of ineffable loss.
Ballesteros had a different allure from other champions. He was talented in the extreme, but it was the way his glory years in the late '70s and early '80s personified the purity of instinct that made him such a vicarious pleasure. That he would fall prey to paralysis by analysis in the full swing is one of the game's most cruel ironies.
For all his transcendent skill around the green -- which he never really lost -- what set Ballesteros apart was passion. Whenever he competed, he was all in. The crazy intensity of purpose is what made Ballesteros and Faldo blood brothers in the game, and it's why the Englishman was overcome recalling how a tearful Ballesteros embraced him in victory at the 1995 Ryder Cup and told him, "You are a great champion."
The most powerful display of inner force I ever saw from Ballesteros came in the 2006 British Open, his last appearance in the championship. With a resolve intended as an example to his caddie, his then-15-year-old son Javier, Ballesteros never betrayed discouragement. Even as he missed the cut, he somehow retained the regal presence of his prime, when, as Rodger Davis remembered, "his neck looked about six inches long, he stood so tall."
Endearingly, Ballesteros returned to normal size off the course, where he seemed to intentionally keep his life smaller than other modern champions. He never left Pedrena, a fishing village of 1,500 people, and even his business office across the bay in bustling Santander possessed a modest drabness that recalled the age of Franco. The Royal Golf Club of Pedrena was an incongruous bandbox for a world-class player to practice.
I had made an unannounced visit to the club in 1990 in hopes of interviewing Ballesteros, who was rightfully irritated to find me lurking around the practice green. But after venting, he answered every question and later drove me to the ferry -- perhaps to make sure I would leave.
Ballesteros was expecting me when I visited him at his home last spring. He had just undergone a grueling series of radiation treatments, but he greeted me warmly. As we sat on a sofa in a sun-lit room with stunning views of the Bay of Biscay, he considered both past and future. On several occasions he was unable to fight back tears, not uncommon among those recovering from brain surgery. "A lot of people think I'm very hard, you know," he said. "But you see the sensitive part now."
He became most emotional on the subject of returning to St. Andrews, where he won the 1984 British Open, to join past champions in a four-hole exhibition. A huge boxing fan, he smiled at the suggestion that his appearance would be golf's version of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Sadly, Ballesteros didn't make it to the Old Course, after doctors advised him the strong emotions would threaten his recovery. He came to deeply regret that he missed one final special moment, to the point friends believe the resulting depression hastened his decline.
Leaving his home, I didn't think I was seeing Ballesteros for the last time. He had hidden the strain of the interview well, but when I went back to get my briefcase, I found him lying on a couch, his hand over his eyes. I apologized, and thanked him one more time.
"It's all right," he said. "Thank you for coming, Jaime. Goodbye."
As softly as possible, I closed the door.