Saturday, May 14, 2011


There have been three sports in my life. Motor Racing, Golf and Cricket. Put like that, the common thread between them is individuality. One person drives the car, One person swings the club and one person bowls the ball or one person holds the bat. Yes, there are others involved, but when push comes to shove it’s all down to one person either succeeding or failing.

I fell in love with Motor Racing when I was very young, and it was an absolute passion with me through my teens. I hoovered up information about it and followed it as best one could in the days when live TV coverage did not exist. The passion ceased abruptly on April 7 1968 when Jim Clark, the greatest driver I ever saw, was killed in a meaningless little race in Germany. After that, I was merely a fan of it all. If the pleasure I gained from it cost a man’s life, then it simply wasn’t worth it. I followed the greats who followed Clark – Stewart, Petersen, Senna, but it wasn’t the same. I admired what they did but they didn’t move me like Clark did.

From the ear splitting din and ever present danger of the racing car to the calm deliberations of the golfer. I’d been watching golf for as long as I could remember. Even as far back as the days of Arnold Palmer and the rise of the young upstart Jack Nicklaus, who was not universally liked when he was young – people thought he was a porky, jumped up rich boy then. The two of them plus the South African Gary Player became known as “The Big Three” as TV marketing of the golf personality started out on its faltering first steps.

When you watched them on TV, golfers came across as a bit impersonal, with only Palmer shining through as a personality, rather than someone who could hit a golf ball rather well. This feeling of golfers as automatons carried on for a good twenty years. I went to a fair number of tournaments, and watched a huge amount of golf on TV once they’d got the presentation sorted out, but you admired them rather than were excited by them.

Then, towards the end of the seventies a young Spanish guy hit the screen. He played in the Open, and was only beaten by Johnnie Miller, coming 2nd equal with Nicklaus. He was only 19, and his name was Severiano Ballesteros. He blew me away, and immediately I felt that here was a guy with the common touch, someone the average golfer (and I wasn’t even as good as that) could empathise with. This one got into scrapes just like I did.

Over the years, I became a committed and total fan of his. He was a stunning golfer, and for a few years there was no-one better than him on the planet. But it was the way he played that captivated you. He wasn’t that straight off the tee, so often he got himself in a God awful mess. But then he’d play a magical shot to get back into contention, a shot which simply wasn’t in the book.

Perhaps his record doesn’t quite match the Nicklauses and the Woods of this world, but anyone who manages to win 2 Masters and 3 Opens in the UK has got nothing to worry about. The thing about Seve was the way he did it all.

People should look at his record in Match Play if they want to see his true strength. He won the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth 5 times. And his Ryder Cup record is simply amazing. Beating the man, rather than the course, - he was simply the best there was. Quite frankly, if you had to pick anyone to play head to head for you if your life depended on the outcome, you’d pick him immediately.

One of my life’s little pleasures was getting an invite to the 1988 Open at Lytham St Annes. The invite was from the business partner of someone who handled the Insurances of the company I worked for at the time. It so happened that this man was a Member of the Royal & Ancient Committee, and the ticket allowed entrance into the Clubhouse during the tournament. “Would I like to go?” You bet.

Part way through the day, my Insurance man and I went into the hallowed ground of the Locker room, and just sat there on the wooden benches for a while. The golfers came and went either at the start or the end of their round, a few feet away from me. I kept schtum, as I thought that some chirpy comment from me would not be overly welcome. I did the nonchalant, seen it all before bit, not too well I suspect, until Mr Ballesteros walked into the room. I just sat there gawping like an idiot, simply registering that I was in the same room as my hero. I doubt if he even registered my existence, but I sure registered his.

There have been a blizzard of newspaper articles in his honour, and two of them, coincidently came up with the same thought. They were both written by sports reporters who played golf, of the hacker variety. They both headed their article of homage “What would Seve do?” Whenever they got into a golfing scrape, this is the thought which immediately went through their minds. In spite of Seve’s genius, they still thought he was one of them. The way he played his golf was vulnerable, getting into scrapes and getting out of them with a flash of brilliance. These two hacks got into similar scrapes, but the only difference was that Seve got out of them.

Thinking back through watching golf over 50 years, there are only three players who were universally referred to by a single name. Arnie, Tiger and Seve. The others, people like Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman were all players you admired. Seve was different. His smile, his audacity, his ability to bond with his fans made him very special, and to me a golfer apart. You just had to watch him, because you didn’t know what he was going to do. He seemed to make it up as he went along. If I went to a tournament and he was playing, the choice of who to watch for the day was trivial. You just got to the tee and trooped round following him.

It’s was very sad watching his demise, both in the late Nineties when he didn’t know when to give up playing, and recently as he battled the brain tumour that ended his life. Watching a great sportsman in decline is very sad. Then, when he announced his medical problems a couple of years ago, I had this horrible feeling that the Gods were going to claim him early.

Probably more than any other single player, he pushed European Golf forward and showed the Americans, some of whom can be a bit overbearing about the exclusivity of their own skills, that there are people over here who also know how to play the game.

But forget all that. I think he was simply the most exciting golfer I’ve ever seen by a country mile, and a man who gave me more pleasure watching a game than any other I know.  




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