“Men wanted to be like him, women wanted to be with him"
One of my favourite memories of Seve Ballesteros is a strange one. It came at the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village on the second morning, Europe had whitewashed the Americans the previous day to take a 6-2 lead and Ballesteros and debutant Jose Maria Olazabal had won their first two matches. In the Saturday foursomes the Spaniards were three up for most of the morning against Ben Crenshaw and Payne Stewart but came to the 18th just one up.
The hosts made a mess of the closing hole but Crenshaw, being Crenshaw, rolled in a 12-foot bogey putt to leave the visitors with two putts from just above the hole for the match. Anywhere else and it would have been a concession but this was like lightning.
“I have to putt from four feet and all we need to do is two putts, and so we start reading the putt and he said, ‘Right lip’. I said, ‘Right lip, yeah, looks good’. Jose Maria said several times, ‘Be careful, it's very, very fast’.
“So I take over and I hit the putt and I hit it a little left and the ball start to speed up and it went by the hole about maybe 10 feet and I say,’ Oh, my God, it's unbelievable how fast this putt’. He said, ‘How many times did I tell you that that was really fast?’ He said, ‘Don't worry, relax, relax, I make this one for you’. He holed it and that was the end of the story.”
In my head that was the most important putt in the history of the Ryder Cup for Europe. It meant that Tony Jacklin’s side kept the momentum and it laid the foundations for the first ever away win. And, while we might have had the powerhouses of Faldo, Woosnam, Langer and Lyle in the European engine room, we needed Seve to be the superstar of this assault – and it meant that he and Olazabal, who would go on to be the greatest ever Ryder Cup pairing, would be a perfect 3/3.
But what I particularly loved about this half in bogey fives was how distraught Seve appeared at the first putt before enveloping his 21-year-old partner almost before the return putt had even dropped.
Come the following evening Seve had knocked in the winning putt, Europe had won in America for the first time and the record books would show Ballesteros as our leading scorer with four points from five.
As a pair Olazabal and Seve would contribute 12 points from a possible 15. When Olazabal captained the team in 2012 the Europeans wore navy blue jumpers and white shirts with a silhouette of Ballesteros on the sleeve as they went into the final day 10-6 in arrears – what then followed was beyond even the stuff of dreams.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Seve was with me all day because there’s no chance I would have won my match if he wasn’t there. It was amazing and it feels so good to be able to win it for him and for our captain,” explained Garcia.
Justin Rose birdied the last two holes to overhaul a stunned Phil Mickelson.
“In the moment you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do but as soon as I holed the putt on the 18th, as soon as I came off the green, my first thought has been to Seve. I had a glance down and looked at my left sleeve and that’s the kind of stuff he would have done. He’s been an inspiration for this team all week long.”
For Olazabal the affection and love for his mentor is one of the most beautiful things in, not just golf, but sport. When he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009 Olazabal would thank everyone who had played a part in his amazing career. His final word went to his Ryder Cup partner.
“There's one more person that I want to thank, and that is my dear friend Seve. He deserves it. He gave me a call when I was 15 years old. Not many people know this, and he gave me a call and asked me to play in a match, in a charity match against him at his home club in Pedrena. And I said yes without knowing the implications of that answer in my future career.
“Something really special happened that day. I don't know what it was, but it was truly special. Because a few years later I played in my first Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village. I was a 21-year-old boy, and the captain, I guess, didn't know what to do with me. And Seve approached the captain, Tony Jacklin, and said, ‘Tony, I will play with Olly’. And the rest is history. I was never a genius like you, Seve, but I did the best I could. And as my mentor, all I can hope for is that you're proud of me. Twenty eight years ago you opened a circle and somehow that circle closes today. I want to thank you for all the wonderful memories you have given me and for all you have done for the game of golf.”
Seve’s reach was wider than any of us could ever probably imagine. At many of our first Opens or European Tour events the majority of us would head straight in the direction of Seve. At my first Open in 1985 a friend and I would clamber across the dunes at Sandwich to locate the defending champion.
My favourite shot of all time was from following Seve at Wentworth in the PGA when he fizzed a 5-iron off the cart path at the 15th to three feet and my happiest memory in all of golf was the image of him beaming from ear to ear, and the rest of that 1987 team, arriving into Heathrow Airport on a drizzly Monday night in September, 24 hours after all those heroics in Ohio.
Another of my teenage heroes was our club professional, Dean Wingrove, at Wimbledon Park in South West London. In his time he coached the likes of Roger Chapman, Gordon Brand Jr and Seve’s partner at the 1983 Ryder Cup Paul Way. His pro shop was decorated with pics of tour players and, in the pride of place, was Seve. Dean, like the rest of us, loved him to bits.
“In 1993 I was coaching Roger Chapman at the Benson & Hedges International Open at St Mellion. The sponsor supplied the players with accommodation and there were about 20 lodges on the grounds of the property. You had to have passes to get in and out. I was staying with Roger in one of the lodges.
“In the middle of them was a small clubhouse for the players to relax. They would serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each night all the players would gather for a bite to eat. I was standing in the queue and I was looking down towards the floor when I noticed a pair of shiny black leather shoes, slate grey slacks with creases that you could cut your hands on, a navy blue shirt and a double ply matching cashmere Boss sweater, topped off with an incredible aftershave that I have never smelt before or since. Not that I was standing too close but he turned around and noticed my wife and I standing behind him and, with his beautiful Spanish accent, he said: “Good evening.”
“Before I could say his name he took my wife’s hand, raised it to his lips, looked her in the eyes and said: “I’m Seve.” It was a good job I was standing by her side because I swear her knees went.
“He was the most remarkable man, with kind eyes and a great smile. Men wanted to be like him, women wanted to be with him. He was a golfing artist with the most beautiful swing and, when he was in full flow, he was unbeatable. But he had a massive problem, his back. It used to get so bad at times that he couldn’t move.
“Our lodge was next to Seve’s. At about 5.45am I woke and walked into the living room. I looked across the lawn and I saw Seve stretching, moving all over the place, standing, bending, and rolling like a ball across the floor. Roger came into the kitchen about 7.30am and I asked if he had seen all this.
Seve was still stretching. “Oh mate, he will be there for hours yet, his back goes out more than he does!” explained Chapman. “Poor Seve tried to play in the pro-am that year but couldn’t do it.”
Another time out on tour, in the days of when caddies would wait down on one end of the range, Dean witnessed Seve at his charming best.
“In those days the crowds could stand on the practice ground really close to their heroes. Seve was hitting the ball beautifully. He was hitting a 7-iron, smooth as silk, hands hanging low, chin up, wonderful follow-through, just the right amount of turf. The caddy was catching every single one. The only time his caddy would move was when he heard a shout of fore from another player.
“One of the punters was brave enough to ask Seve what he was hitting? “A 7-iron,” he replied without being concerned by someone intruding in his practice.
“How far do you hit your 7-iron?”
“I like to hit it about 160.”
“Oh, no different to me then,” came the punter’s reply.
“Seve just smiled, that lovely smile, addressed the ball and swung the club exactly the same. The ball shot off the clubface and climbed in the air and went up and up and continued up, the caddy watched the ball go straight over his head as if his head was on a hinge and it landed about 30 yards past him. With that the caddy looked at Seve with a face like thunder, lifting both arms to the sky in protest. Seve said: “He really hates it when I do that…
“Always play within yourself,” he continued.