CARNOUSTIE, Scotland - Seve Ballesteros has been gone from golf's center stage for a long time already, but the sense of loss on a gray Monday morning at the British Open was palpable.
In an emotional impromptu press conference, Ballesteros announced that he was officially retiring from competitive golf at the age of 50.
"For a few months there was something confused inside of me," Ballesteros said as he tapped his chest. "There was a fight, internal fight. My head say I think you should retire. But my heart was keeping telling me that you would be better to continue playing and compete."
After only one Champions Tour appearance in Florida in April, Ballesteros returned home and wrestled with his head and his heart. On Monday, he revealed the results.
"I made probably the most difficult decision of my career as a player, and I decided to retire," he said in quiet, careful sentences as he looked across the room with reddened eyes.
His announcement might not mean much to anyone who thinks Ballesteros is the golfer who hasn't made a major cut in a dozen years. But it meant a lot more than that.
As Ballesteros stepped from the stage and retreated behind the curtains, you couldn't help but realize that the world has seen the last of his kind. In a era of technological advances, the kind of inventive shot-making that made Ballesteros the most beloved golfing giant of the 20th Century in Europe is a lost art. And golf is much the worse for it.
"His style he played was just a classic," said Nick Faldo, who for years played Europe's version of Jack Nicklaus to Ballesteros' Arnold Palmer. "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 - Cirque du Soleil afterwards. He was Cirque du Soleil on golf. I think that's probably the best description. It was artistry and grace and everything."
Talk to anyone from this side of the Atlantic Ocean and they will wax on wistfully about the artistry of Seve's game. Veteran golf writer John Hopkins with The Times of London speaks of the shots he witnessed Ballesteros make that literally "made the hair stand up on the back of my neck."
"We'd never seen anyone like him and arguably could never again," Hopkins said.
Five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson called Ballesteros "one of the two greatest natural golfers I ever saw. The other one was Sam Snead."
Only three months ago when Ballesteros made his return to Augusta National Golf Club after four years away, he flashed his old form to a camera crew by hitting a velvety greenside bunker shot using a 3-iron.
The European fans - particularly the educated crowds who flocked to see Ballesteros swash-buckle his way to three Open Championships - always got the engaging Spaniard.
"He was fantastic for the game," said Faldo. "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."
Despite winning a pair of green jackets as well, Ballesteros never thought he got the credit due to him in the U.S. Americans never quite understood just how important a figure Ballesteros was to the whole of the game, lifting the Ryder Cup on his own shoulders, out of its boutique existence and into the grand limelight it now enjoys.
"That's one of the legacies, things that I'm leaving behind me, I think," he said.
If the Americans never really understood Ballesteros' significance, he certainly never understood the view of him in the States. He thought Americans and the U.S. media perceived him as a lucky golfer and that they mocked him by always talking about him winning events out of the car park as he did in his first major victory at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1979.
But anyone who ever watched the way Ballesteros attacked the course and coped with whatever challenges that faced him had nothing but intense admiration for him.
That chip Ballesteros carried is part of what made him so great and so important. For whatever reason, that fire that churned in his belly was one of the guiding lights in modern golf. Even on his way out the door, he couldn't resist a little jab at the American woes in recent Ryder Cups.
"I think I would just like to see the Americans win the Ryder Cup again because it looks like there's only one side, no competition," he said. "We need more competition, more close. On Sundays it's not fair anymore."
That's the classic Seve that will be sorely missed. Faldo, the next Ryder Cup captain, had breakfast with Ballesteros and sensed something was happening. As Faldo prepares for his senior debut next week in the Senior British Open at Muirfield by playing this week at Carnoustie, he understood the struggle Ballesteros has gone through.
"You've given your heart and soul to something, it's hard," Faldo said. "I hope he doesn't think it's admitting defeat. I'm really pleased he decided to call it a day."
Ballesteros felt compelled to announce his retirement in person in part to renounce some recent rumors circulating from an erroneous Spanish TV report last week. The story claimed Ballesteros was suffering from depression and tried to commit suicide, citing a hospital visit last month.
"I felt some kind of tension in my chest and I went to the hospital," Ballesteros said. "They say that perhaps you have arrhythmia and you better spend some time being in the hospital. I was there for several hours, and then they released me and I went home. And that's it."
And now he leaves golf behind and goes home for good. Sadly, we may never see the likes of him again.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Turned pro: 1974
- Masters Tournament: 1980 and 1983
- British Open: 1979, 1984 and 1988
Awards and Honors
- Inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame in 1997
- Named European Player of the Century in 2000
- Named Spanish Sportsman of the Century in 2000
- Presented Key to Augusta in 1999
- First European to win the Masters
- Named Golf Digest "World Player of the Year" in 1988
- Captain of victorious 1997 European Ryder Cup team