Singular Genius

By John Huggan Photos by Getty Images
May 05, 2011

One of Ballesteros' biggest triumphs came at the 1984 British Open at St. Andrews.

How good was he? Well, he hit the greatest shot Jack Nicklaus ever saw, a spectacularly-sliced 3-wood from a deep fairway bunker. He once made Lee Trevino jump from his armchair in celebration of a mere chip shot. And he was, by a distance that can surely be measured only in light years, the most historically-significant European golfer of the last 50 years. It's been said many times, but every competitor in this week's Spanish Open -- ironically the last event the great man won back in 1995 -- should today look skyward and mouth a heartfelt 'Thank you' for the life and times of Seve Ballesteros.

There are those who give credit to former executive director Ken Schofield for the financial rise of the European Tour since its inception in 1974. Others point to major champions like Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and, especially, Nick Faldo as the building blocks for a circuit that last year boasted prize funds in excess of $183 million. But, as all of those men will surely acknowledge, their contributions were mere add-ons when stacked against the endlessly charismatic contribution of the legendary Spaniard, who has died at the tragically early age of 54.

Genius, it is often said, is an overused word, especially in sport. But Ballesteros qualified, with something to spare. Ever since he learned his golf whacking balls around with an old 3-iron on the beach at Pedrena, the tiny fishing village on Spain's windswept northern coast where he lived all of his too-short life, Seve was the creator of special shots. As far back as the late 1970s -- using a persimmon-headed driver and a ball far removed from the turbo-charged missiles of today -- he drove the 10th green at the Belfry. His opponent that day, Faldo, could only shake his head in wonder.

Seve, of course, played the game in a way the rest could only imagine.

"Whenever he went to the chipping green, I went too," says former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "Just to watch. For me, he is maybe the most talented player ever."

"He could hit shots that no one else could hit," agrees Jose Maria Olazabal, who 15 times partnered his older compatriot in Ryder Cup play. "I remember playing with him at El Saler in the Spanish Open. He missed the green at a short hole. The ball finished wide of a bunker and finished in heavy rough. There was tree overhanging between him and the flag, which was only ten feet or so from the edge of the green. I actually found his ball and thought he had an impossible shot.

"I told my caddie the best he could do was maybe 12 feet past the hole. Of course, he goes over there, takes a couple of practice swings and hits the perfect shot. The ball lipped out. He hit it so softly. He had that ability no one else had."

Perversely, the technical evolution of the game over the last two decades only limited the creative shot-making artistry epitomized by Ballesteros. Big-headed drivers, square grooves and 60-degree wedges all gave the less gifted an undeserved opportunity to play shots like Seve. But it was the growing of long rough that especially limited his almost limitless creativity.

"I never believed he was a bad driver, certainly not at his peak," says Olazabal. "He was wild when he was young and he was bad at the end; in the middle he was a magnificent driver. But the way course setups evolved did not help him. He was gradually reduced to playing the same shot as everyone else. Which was stupid of course."

Given his propensity for extravagance, it is no surprise that many of Seve's finest shots are preserved on YouTube

. Perhaps the most inventive is the fairway wood he struck from under a tree while on his knees. The ball, wildly hooked, ran and ran and ran, almost to the very edge of the distant green.

He was a true sportsman, too, in the purest sense. The mind's eye goes back to the 1978 Masters and the putt Gary Player holed on the final green for victory. Seconds after the ball disappeared into the cup, the diminutive South African was engulfed in a spontaneous bear hug from Ballesteros, his playing partner. It was a touching and appropriate acknowledgement of excellence in an opponent.

The most famous "Seve moment," however, remains the wild celebration that followed the 10-foot putt he holed on the 18th green at St. Andrews to all but seal victory in the 1984 Open Championship. Again and again he punched the sky, his darkly handsome face alive with the enormity of the moment. It is a memory worth preserving.

Sadly for all who love golf as the art form it is meant to be and not the science it has become, we may never see his like again.