Once at the U.S. Open, I watched Seve Ballesteros practice bunker shots for 20 minutes, sometimes stepping on the ball to simulate a buried lie, or throwing it down hard to create a fried-egg lie. The result was a group of nearly perfect shots engulfing the hole, as tight a pattern of excellence as any pro could achieve from a steep-faced trap.
However, the method was just slightly different: Ballesteros only used a 3-iron in the trap, a club that, it was universally assumed, was utterly impossible to use for such a purpose. Perhaps no other player in the world could have gotten even one ball over the head-high lip of the trap and onto any part of the green.
Seve, cocking the club at a ridiculous angle at address, somehow turned the flattish blade with no “bounce” into a precision instrument. The whole show was designed to mock the limitations of talent and imagination of the dozens of other pros who pretended to be practicing, too, but barely hit a shot because they wanted to peek at Ballesteros.
Perhaps I should have noted his method, to the degree I could understand it, for posterity. But the performance was such an audacious, pretentious piece of gamesmanship — typical of Ballesteros, with no practical purpose but to annoy and intimidate the predominantly American players around him — that you didn’t think it was worthy of special note. Who knew, perhaps the next day he would do something comparable, but completely different — maybe practice hitting half-swing drivers off hardpan that would hit a tree in front of him and bounce back over his head onto the green.
The same amount of exploratory time, everyone knew, could have been used on the practice range, where Ballesteros always desperately needed to work on straightening out his titanically long but incredibly wild driver. But that was boring. And if he mastered that key element of his craft, it would only bring him equal to his foes. So, what was the point? He would practice shots he would never use simply to advertise his talent, please himself — and give me a memory that will last longer than all the shots I ever saw played by Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo and Hale Irwin combined.
The sportswriting convention holds that we observe great athletes for many years and in every available circumstance, until we have something to offer toward an understanding of them as people, as well as performers. Unless we are complete dullards, it shouldn’t be so hard. You can spend a week or month studying most journalism subjects and make a decent attempt at a profile.
I spent more than a decade with golf as one of my major responsibilities when Seve was at or near the top of the sport. Yet he was a mystery to me then and he remains so in death. I covered most of the events for which he will be remembered, including his two victories at the Masters in ’80 and ’83, as well as his win at the British Open at St. Andrews and several Ryder Cups when his leadership and elan confounded duller, less charismatic or confident American players.
But I never “got” him. His background was termed “agrarian,” though his three older brothers were all pro golfers. My grandfather was a farmer and I spent plenty of time there. That “connection” was no help. Ballesteros may have been from the farm, but he sure didn’t seem as if he longed to go back to one. He turned to sport early and never cared for education. But he was so quick in repartee that no one doubted his intelligence.
No golfer was more handsome or had a more radiant, infectious smile when he chose to unleash it, yet he often seemed annoyed or isolated. Or on a solitary lone march to some place to which nobody else was privy. I saw him in America and Europe, in airports and locker rooms. He seldom seemed happy, except when he was ecstatic or triumphant. I suspect he was the only real art-for-art’s-sake artist that I ever witnessed in golf and, to this day, it irritates me that I have little idea what made him tick.
Dislike of American hegemony in golf hardly seems enough to define a man, so that can’t be it. Nevertheless, golf is now a world game, in which the United States is just another component, largely because Ballesteros obliterated the myth of U.S. superiority. He reminded everyone that we didn’t invent the game and hadn’t fully explored or perfected it and that our time alone at the top was an historical accident that would pass with his help.
Journalists root for the story — the story, that is, that they know how to tell well. Or at least know how to dig out. Seve gave a good effort at explaining himself in English — though his explanation of a four putt, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make” — is also an accurate reflection of how he used the language barrier to craft a whimsical, slightly shy but also sly image of himself: You see the twinkle in my eye, but you don’t entirely know what it means. Ballesteros, at least to the U.S. golf press, saw no advantage in being deeply understood. So, he wasn’t.
Last month at the Masters, when Jack Nicklaus and other past champions were asked to comment on Ballesteros’s health — which had been failing since a cancerous brain tumor was found in 2008 — they were uniformly sympathetic and warm, and some said they’d sent him messages. But, as a group, including European players, they seemed not quite up to speed, as though Ballesteros, who had not won an important individual event in nearly 20 years, was something of a mystery to them, too.
Or perhaps mystery is the wrong word. Maybe “mystique” is more to the point. Ballesteros had it, knew it, enjoyed it and, probably, cultivated it.
A man who wants to be thoroughly understood and embraced does not spend 20 minutes in a sand trap hitting the toughest bunker shots with a 3-iron — and never explain how it is done — unless, at some prickly level, he prefers to be remembered as an artist of sport who remained to the end an almost magical, magnetic and unknowable star.