June 2011

JUNE 2011: Golf Tips From a Pro - Tribute to a Golf Legend

Author: Pete Popovich

Long, long ago, in a golf galaxy far, far away, there was a swashbuckling figure in the golf world that people would soon tune their televisions to see. I’m not talking about Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods. This other person’s ability to make a golf ball move almost at his command was awe-inspiring to even the Nicklauses, Floyds and Palmers of the world. This man’s name was Severiano Ballesteros, or as most of us knew him, Seve.

Many of today’s youth would not remember Seve, for he played in an era before 450cc titanium heads, game improvement irons, 60-degree wedges, and balls that seem to fly forever. It was in the era of forged blade clubs and out-of-control-spinning balata golf balls that Seve thrived. He did so with imagination and a deep burning desire to prove to the rest of the world, and to himself, that even a boy from humble beginnings can make it.

Seve’s practice facility was in the fields and on the beaches of Pedrena, Spain. His only club was a hand-me-down three iron, yet, like most great artists, Seve was self-taught, with imagination as his only instructor. Using his cast-off 3 iron and his imagination, he turned himself into an escape artist with skills at which even Houdini would marvel. To watch him play golf made you want to go out and practice that much harder so you could one day hit shots like no one else in the world.

Typically, when we hear stories of a legend, they are full of enhancements that make us wonder how much has been embellished. Yet when you heard of Seve backing the ball up a down-slope on the green or hitting a 3 iron out of a buried lie in a sand trap to six inches, you knew the story was true, because you had watched him hit those shots—and more like it—over and over again.

Very few athletes in the world are known by just one name; Tiger, Ali, Pele, Arnie, etc. Seve is one of those people. He preceded Tiger and Phil, and he is still the master of shot-making to those who dare to compare. He single-handedly put the Europeans on the golf map and re-wrote the way golf is played. His “grip it and rip it” mentality was the exception long before it became the norm. In an era of persimmon heads and wound balata golf balls, he would routinely hit 300-yard drives, not always knowing where his ball would end up; but the ensuing shots were where Seve shined. It was once said that “he could get up and down out of a ball washer.” By partnering an uncanny ability to get the ball in or near the hole from almost any spot on the golf course, with his deeply-rooted Spanish flair, charisma and desire, he showed the creative sense from which all art derives.

In 1979, the Ryder Cup format changed to allow players from continental Europe to join the team, and Seve was the first player chosen. It was Seve’s overwhelming passion and desire to win and his uncanny ability to hit shots no one had ever seen that got the Europeans to believe in themselves. In 1983, Europe almost pulled off the unthinkable by beating the Americans on their own soil, due in large part to Seve.

Seve was the first European (and at the time the youngest person) to ever win the Masters. Unbeknownst to most at the time, this was the beginning of more than a decade of European dominance in the world of golf. Seve showed the other young leading European players including Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langher and Ian Woosnam (all future number one players in the world) that beating the Americans was possible.

By 1985, Seve had turned his fellow “Euro’s” into believers, which led them to dominate the Ryder Cup for the better part of the decade. Most believe that without Seve’s competitive spirit, true love of the game and ability to create order out of chaos, the Ryder Cup would never be where it is today.

Seve’s star would burn brightly for over a decade before fading away. I prefer to think he burned brightly so he could show others the way to a place they had not been before. He was a leader, a pioneer and a legend the game will never forget. On Seve’s passing, Graeme McDowell said, “God must have needed a short game lesson.”

Some years ago, an older gentleman and golf aficionado who had witnessed every British Open from the late-1920s through the late-1980s was asked, “Who was the greatest golfer you ever saw?” His answer was, “There were two. Hogan was near perfection……..….But Ballesteros was mesmerizing.”

Mesmerizing. Yes. Look it up. There are multiple definitions. Yet to many who truly love golf, Seve Ballesteros is the true definition of the word. As someone who followed Seve’s career from early on, I can say he will surely be missed.

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