Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Golf loses a genius of the game

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We lost a giant Saturday, the likes of which will never be seen again.

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Seve Ballesteros hugs his caddy on #18 after winning the 1983 Masters.   FILE
FILE
Seve Ballesteros hugs his caddy on #18 after winning the 1983 Masters.

Seve Ballesteros was one of the three most influential golfers of the 20th century -- figures set apart from their fellow great champions by some special bond they bridged outside the ropes.

First came Bobby Jones, who illuminated golf with his universally recognized brilliance in the golden age of sports. Then came Arnold Palmer, who carried the game on his robust shoulders into the television era setting the stage for more greats who followed.

Then there was Seve, who lit up golf's arenas with all the charisma and style of Arnie and all the swashbuckling star power of Errol Flynn. He led the renaissance of an entire continent of golfers and golf fans back to the highest reaches of the game like the Pied Piper. His fierce competitiveness made the Ryder Cup into a biennial theater unlike anything else the game has ever known.

"He was fantastic for the game," said Nick Faldo, who won more majors than Ballesteros but never more hearts. "Handsome, charisma, energy, determination -- he had all of those in abundance as an individual and as a teammate. Just an awesome player. He brought interest to places in Europe that, crumbs, didn't know anything at all about golf. He broke the barrier down for many of us who went over and won the Masters."

Ballesteros' influence, however, wasn't simply limited to Europe. It was his rollicking victory as a 23-year-old at Augusta in 1980 -- the first by a European golfer -- that inspired a 9-year-old boy in California to aspire to play the game with the same fearlessness and panache as the flamboyant Spaniard.

"I want to win that tournament," Phil Mickelson said to his mother. "I want to be like that and win this event."

Mickelson served Spanish cuisine at this year's Champions Dinner in tribute to Ballesteros, who could not attend.

Sadly, Ballesteros was one of those luminaries whose brilliance was so bright that it burned out way too soon. He stopped contending in majors at age 34. He made his last cut in the British Open at age 37. He made his final cut in the Masters only a year later.

Yet in that brief window he left an indelible mark. He played with such joy and passion that it was impossible to look away. He was an escape artist, which unfairly gave him a reputation for lacking control. On the contrary, he was just so gifted at conjuring up recoveries that we paid attention to him in situations when others would be dismissed.

"Seve is a genius, one of the few authentic geniuses of the sport," said Ben Crenshaw, who finished runner-up to Ballesteros at the 1979 British Open and 1983 Masters. "The key is that he is never in trouble. He is often stuck between the trees in the forest, but that's not a problem for him. It's normal."

He understood and saw the game in ways that most modern players could never comprehend and can never imitate. Young Spanish star Alvaro Quiros says Seve had "the hands of an artist."

"Seve was special for many reasons," Quiros said. "He played golf in a different way than the rest of the field. But at the same time, he was able to hit shots that nobody can hit. This is something that you have or you don't have it. Nobody is going to teach you to be Seve."

THE 'GREATEST SHOW IN GOLF'

"His style he played was just a classic," Faldo said. "Tee it up, hit it, chase after it and hit it again. The energy in his shots was just fantastic. It wasn't just a slight swing and pose. It was a whole -- swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. He was Cirque du Soleil -- the greatest show in golf. I think that's probably the best description. It was artistry and grace and everything."

After he lost that artistic touch too young, Ballesteros had too much pride in his diminished game to be a ceremonial golfer. He stopped participating in majors, showing up only occasionally. His last British Open was at Hoylake in 2006 with his son, Baldomero, carrying his bag. A nervous Ballesteros shot 74-77. A year later he returned to the Open to tearfully announce his retirement from competitive golf.

"It was nice to walk up the fairways of an Open Championship one time with my son," Ballesteros said at Hoylake. "That was fantastic."

The love he engendered from the fans followed him every step. Appreciative galleries cheered him. Like Palmer for so many years at Augusta, it was not the score that Ballesteros shot that mattered. It was just seeing him that made the spectators rise to their feet.

"I miss making birdies and the crowd shouting my name," said Ballesteros in a reflective 2008 interview shortly before being stricken by a malignant brain tumor.

Ballesteros' death at age 54 is a personal blow to fans of a certain age. I first fell in love with the game at age 14 in 1978, coinciding with the emergence of the shot-making savant from Pedrena, Spain. Those formative years were spent watching Ballesteros dominate around the world with an imagination that exceeded the simple minds of golfing mortals. He often failed, but he always left his mark.

Except for a select few, today's golfers don't display a fraction of the feel and creativity that Seve showed us every time he played. To be fair, golfers aren't asked the same questions by the game. The equipment and the agronomy have advanced to a place where the breadth of imagination required is more limited in scope.

That's a pity. If the game's leaders wanted to truly honor Seve's memory, they would figure out a way to restore the relevance of his style in an era before players carried five different wedges, several hybrids, long putters and balls designed to combat the elements of spin. It's probably too late to cap the bottle of technology, but maybe something as simple as reducing the number of clubs in the bag from 14 to 11 would require today's elite players to learn how to do more with less the way Ballesteros could.

THE FINAL TRIP TO AUGUSTA

That singular genius was last revealed to me in 2007 when Seve made his final trip to Augusta. In the peace of the Sunday before Masters Week started, I stumbled upon Ballesteros practicing alone on the green opposite Magnolia Lane from the old range. A two-man European TV crew was following his return to his "American home."

He was asked if he could really hit bunker shots with a 3-iron -- the only club he had when he learned to play the game as a kid on the beaches in northern Spain.

"You want to see it?" he said to the three of us standing there.

I will never forget the sight of the nearly 50-year-old man pulling the 3-iron from his bag, opening the blade almost 90 degrees, digging his feet into the sand and then gently swinging the club. The sand exploded yet the ball floated out high and landed softly on the green, coming to a stop a couple feet from the cup.

You can imagine what our faces looked like. Seve smiled as he stepped out of the bunker and looked at us. He said nothing. He didn't need to.

When the news of Ballesteros' deteriorating condition reached his friends playing in this week's Spanish Open, peers Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez were too emotional to speak with reporters.

"I can't talk," Olazabal said. "I can only wait, and cry."

The beauty of writing is that it can come out even through the tears. And thinking of a world without Seve Ballesteros makes me cry.

I cry for Seve and his family who loved him. I cry for the European fans who adored him.

Most of all, I weep for the game of golf, which will miss one of its truest geniuses more than we can ever know.

Vaya con dios, Severiano. Descansa en paz, amigo.

Comments (14) Add comment
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scorehouse
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scorehouse 05/07/11 - 07:10 pm
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i loved seve. ironically it
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i loved seve. ironically it was the 1986 Masters that devastated seve and left him a shell of himself. i was there. i still remember the moment. jack was on 17 coming on strong, seve has a 4/5 iron to 15, then it happened. seve hit it fat into the water. but what happened at that moment i have never seen at the Masters before or since. the crowd noticeably cheered the missed shot. bobby jones rolled over in his grave at the lack of manners. jack went on to win, seve lost his game. i can't remember if seve was ever asked about that moment and the gallery's behavior? being the consummate warrior, gentlemen he was, he was probably dismissive if the question were asked. i always believed this act by the gallery totally changed him. a crowd favorite whose bad stroke was now applauded. god be with you seve.

waver
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waver 05/07/11 - 09:08 pm
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I remember him wedging it in

I remember him wedging it in on top of Kite on the 8th in 86 and hitting magical chip shots that were like bank shots in billiards. Wasn't there for the shot scorehouse refers to but his Ryder Cup record after that was pretty good...

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/07/11 - 09:49 pm
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"Seve Ballesteros was one of

"Seve Ballesteros was one of the three most influential golfers of the 20th century."

Don't know about that, but it's a moving piece.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 05/08/11 - 09:13 am
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Golf is much more than just

Golf is much more than just the PGA Tour. The European Tour grew into the thriving rival it is today (producing many of the world's best players) on the shoulders of Seve Ballesteros. He did the same for that tour and that television audience that Palmer did for the U.S. tour and audience. And the Ryder Cup as we now know it is a Seve production. If that's not influential ...

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/08/11 - 09:20 am
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Scott, your hyperbole is

Scott, your hyperbole is excessive when it starts ranking Seve as one of the three most influential golfers of the twentieth century even if it is to honor a nice guy whose death saddens the entire golfing world. Augusta made a bronze statue of Raymond Floyd, but Seve's name never came up. Where were you then?

scorehouse
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scorehouse 05/08/11 - 09:58 am
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the whole golf hall of fame
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the whole golf hall of fame was a debacle so there were lots of statues to come. floyd sure looks nice in the augusta airport. wish arnie was there for all the visitors to see.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 05/08/11 - 11:50 am
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Ray Floyd was a wonderful

Ray Floyd was a wonderful golfer. I have never heard his name mentioned EVER as one of the most influential golfers in history. Never heard his name mentioned in the top 20. What legacy other than being a champion and having some guy in Augusta decide to make a statue of him did Floyd leave behind? Seve is universally recognized as the man who elevated a struggling European Tour to what it is today and the man who made the Ryder Cup competitive and worth watching and along with Sam Snead as one of the most naturally gifted shot-makers to ever play the game. There's no hyperbole in that. I don't say he was a greater champion than Nicklaus or Hogan or Player or Watson (I will say with confidence he was greater than Floyd, however) but his impact and influence on the game throughout the world was equal in every way to the influence that Palmer had on making golf the spectacle that it is in America. Sorry Riverman, but you need to turn on your television and watch a few of the tributes about Seve to realize that you may have missed something in measuring the man.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/08/11 - 01:50 pm
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Scott, I'm not really arguing

Scott, I'm not really arguing with you, but a "three most influential of the CENTURY" is a statement usually said much later when evaluations have had time to sink and and the importance of the golfer is weighed instead of during a time when we are expressing our sorrow over the death of a great golfer and good man.

On the Raymond Floyd statue, my point is apparently some think EVEN FLOYD ranks above Seve around here. Understand? And actually their records are not that far apart. It's not that I think Floyd is/was a great player, but he did win four major championships in the U.S. He had TWENTY TWO CAREER WINS. He also excels currently on the Seniors Tour.

Ballesteros won the Masters twice, but what other American tournament? He really never played much after the 90's.

Boogaloo
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Boogaloo 05/08/11 - 03:04 pm
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I think the point is that

I think the point is that golf is an International game now and that Seve was the major factor in it becoming so. It is not just about the PGA Tour anymore.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/08/11 - 03:30 pm
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I'd say Gary Player made it

I'd say Gary Player made it an international game before Seve. Player had three Masters' victories. His last two years before Seve's first. That certainly makes them of the same era.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 05/08/11 - 03:37 pm
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You are arguing. And

You are arguing. And xenophobia is not a compelling defense. I'm pretty comfortable in my case for Seve. It's a big world out there beyond the U.S. borders. A lot of great athletes do amazing things in places all over the world. Seve won six times in the U.S. as a part-timer, which is six more times than Ray Floyd ever won in Europe. Seve won six more times in Japan and a record 50 times on the European Tour in a 19-year window. I think the moments of silence in his honor on every professional tour in the world today illustrates his impact on the game.

Scott Michaux
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Scott Michaux 05/08/11 - 03:41 pm
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And Gary Player is a terrific

And Gary Player is a terrific golf ambassador. He followed the paths of worldwide golf blazed before him by countryman Bobby Locke and Argentine great Robert De Vicenzo. I have nothing but great things to say about Gary Player. But he did nothing to elevate the European Tour and made zero impact on the Ryder Cup. The argument is about influence not merely success, and Seve's was immeasureable.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/08/11 - 03:54 pm
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It's hardly being xenophobic

It's hardly being xenophobic (which is a perjorative charge in this mild discussion) when I point out the contributions of Gary Player. Again, I'm not saying Raymond Floyd was a great golfer, but I'm simply pointing out their stats are similar and that Floyd was esteemed enough for Augusta to include him in the erection of the bronze statues. If I really wanted to argue there were better players in the last century, it would be very easy. My goodness, that's not even close.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 05/09/11 - 05:24 am
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You do realize Gary Player

You do realize Gary Player wasn't eligible for the Ryder Cup. He isn't European. But he did win many international and American events. By the way, I looked up Golf Magazines rankings of the greatest golfers ever. Ballesteros is ranked number 15. Gary Player is number 9. Anyway, interesting discussion. Nice article overall.
http://www.golf.com/golf/generic/0,31317,1912029,00.html

dlaruinalparaiso
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dlaruinalparaiso 02/18/12 - 10:34 am
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I´m totally agreed with

I´m totally agreed with Scott. Good article. The BBC placed Seve Ballesteros as the number one athlete who change our vision of a sport.
I would add his crucial contribution to Ryder Cup.
Sometimes we forget how different the golf was before and after people like Seve Ballesteros.

dlaruinalparaiso
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dlaruinalparaiso 02/18/12 - 10:49 am
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The influence of an artist or

The influence of an artist or a golfer like Seve is not only about victories or money making itis more about the beauty, innovation you get to spectator eyes.

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