Golf loses a genius of the game

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

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.

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Sun, 04/30/2017 - 01:23

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