Remembering Seve Ballesteros' grit and guile

May 07, 2011

The most entertaining nine holes of golf I ever saw was at the 1995 Ryder Cup in the singles match between Seve Ballesteros and Tom Lehman. Seve's level of play had already begun its downward slide and Lehman was at the top of his game, contending in virtually every major and winning the British Open the next year.

Watching Seve play that day was like watching Catfish Hunter pitch on a sweltering Sunday in August without his good stuff. He got by on guile, determination and a skill level that was at one time so massive that reserves of it still remained in the memory bank in great enough quantity to be accessed just often enough to rattle an opponent.

(Related: Look back at Seve's remarkable career in pictures.)

Seve and Tom were the first group out that Sunday morning at Oak Hill near Rochester, N.Y. On No. 1, Seve blew it 30 yards left and made a bogey to go 1 down. On No. 2, the Spaniard flared it out 20 yards to the right, had to play an 8-iron over a tree and could only land the ball short of the green with a bunker between his ball and the pin. With Lehman looking at a 15-foot birdie putt, it seemed as if Seve would go 2 down. Instead, he chipped in, Lehman missed, and the match went to all square.

On No. 4, a par-5, Ballesteros caught a tree and his ball fell straight down. I paced it off. The drive had traveled 92 yards. Not to worry; two 3-woods and two putts later, Seve had a par and the match remained tied. And that's the way it way it went all day. Lehman was fairways and greens; Ballesteros was all over western New York State. But he would never give in.

I kept feeling that if Seve could somehow put together back-to-back birdies, he'd break Lehman's spirit. But ultimately, Lehman was playing too well and Seve too poorly. Tom won the match; but for Seve it was still close to a perfect day: Europe took home the Ryder Cup.

Two years later, at Valderama in Spain, Seve would be the captain of the European team and lead them to victory in an amazing effort during which he seemed to magically pop up at every key moment. It was as if there were a dozen Seves. Balesteros won five major championships, but the Ryder Cup is what he was all about. It was about winning for Europe. He was a proud man and he made his teammates feel the same way.

In 1996, after Lehman won the British Open, he was talking abut the role confidence plays in golf. He said that Seve oozed of confidence. "When you are playing with Seve," Lehman told me, "you look over at him and his body language is screaming: 'No matter what horrible place I have hit my golf ball to, the next shot is going to be the greatest shot you have ever seen.'" More often than you would think, he was right.

For European golf, Seve Ballesteros was both their Arnold Palmer and their Muhammad Ali. He was about more than great golf; he expanded the borders of the game globally and fought passionately for European pride at a time when Americans were dominating the game. I will remember Seve for that, but my first memory will always be that day in Rochester when he had nothing, refused to give up and ultimately celebrated because his team won. That's a champion.

-- Ron Sirak