Ballesteros’s heyday was comparatively brief: He won the first of his five major championships at the British Open at Royal Lytham in 1979, at the age of 22, despite hitting just nine fairways in 72 holes and landing his ball in a parking lot. He went on to win the Masters twice and two more British titles in ’84 and ’88, before back problems got him in the early ’90s. Even after he stopped collecting majors, he still delivered epic, leap-and-shout performances such as the 1989 Ryder Cup at the Belfry, where he left us open-mouthed by winning four grueling matches in 48 hours, with scores that totaled 14 under par, to lead Europe.
In 1990, the “car park champion” made a rare appearance in Washington. He entered the Kemper Open at Avenel, as a warmup for the U.S. Open, because he had begun to struggle badly with his game and thought more tournaments on the PGA Tour might help him, which they didn’t. After practicing for two hours in a pouring rain, he stepped into the clubhouse, soaked and frustrated, his face like a thunderstorm. “I am too hot for this game,” he sighed.
By then he was 33, and his gift for creating brilliance out of his imperfections was beginning to turn on him, and he knew it. Yet though he was wet, and tired, and clearly unhappy about his swing, he chivalrously granted me an interview. For the next hour he was patient, amusing, and self-knowing. He made a tremendous impression — not because he was well-built and princely handsome, or such a champion, but because he was wonderfully engaging. Never again would rudeness and remoteness seem acceptable in a great star.
Among other things, he understood the nature of his popularity: People loved to watch him, he said, because he was them. He hit the ball where they did.
“I am not a very mechanical player,” he said. “I am natural. I am unpredictable. I don’t play like a robot, one shot to the fairway, one shot to the green. I hit many shots off-line. I think people are very familiar with those shots. It’s my recovery they like to see.”
By that time, he was willing to trade some of of his inventiveness for consistency. But it would always elude him.
“I think my temperament is the one that kills me,” he said. “I get hot too easy. It’s no good for this game. You need to be very cool. I am fighting this all the time.”
Possibly, he suggested, he was actually miscast as a golfer. As if the farmer’s son who learned to play golf with just one club, a rusted 3-iron with a stick for a shaft, could have done anything else.
“What would I be?” he asked, shrugging. “A farmer, a fisherman?”
It was typical Ballesteros; deprecating, refusing to take his troubles or himself unduly seriously. Even though he wasn’t hoisting trophies anymore, he didn’t lose his basic appetite for the game.
“It’s not just winning, it’s the pleasure of hitting the shots that you want,” he said. “To play this game and have pleasure.”
He could cry bitterly over a loss, yet he often summoned humor in the midst of calamity, and some of his funniest remarks came from it.
After brutally hacking out of Rae’s Creek at the Masters one year, he remarked laughingly, “Next time I’m going to kill that creek.” Then there was his notorious four-putt at Augusta, which he summed up with “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” Asked to elaborate he said, “The first putt I hit was pretty good. The second putt I hit wasn’t bad. The third putt . . . didn’t go in.” In reply to a question about how to play St. Andrews, he said: “You have to hit it in the right place. Which is left.”
The tributes to Ballesteros this week have ranged from a wreath sent by the queen of Spain, to a bronze sculpture, to the suggestion that the European Tour logo be changed to an image of Ballesteros. None exactly does justice to him, because they can’t capture the antic, hungry, emotive, hard-charging liveliness of him.
My favorite description of Ballesteros came from another talent who is gone but still with us: Jim Murray, who wrote of him: “He goes after a golf course like a lion at a zebra. He doesn’t reason with it.”
Ballesteros’s life ended where it began: in the Cantabrian hamlet of Pedrena, along the rock-edged, turquoise shores of the Bay of Santander, where he was raised.
“The funeral rites will be as simple as those for any neighbor from the village,” his brother Baldomero said. “Seve is a country boy. We thought it was best.”
It’s a simpler and somewhat rougher part of Spain’s coast, not as traveled as the southern Mediterranean, but ancient and splendidly beautiful even so, wild with energy, and suggestive of just what an epic act of self-fashioning his career was. His essence, surely, is there.