As the world grapples with a pandemic, maybe we can take inspiration from the life and times of Spain’s greatest golfer Severiano Ballesteros
For the first time in 75 years, the Masters Tournament at Augusta, Georgia—the first Major of the year—was not held in 2020. The precedence—three years from 1942-45—when the Second World War forced the tournament committee to cancel the event signifies the magnitude and scope of the pandemic that the world is dealing with right now. Nothing short of a war, depending on where in the world you live. Just ask the Spaniards: the virus has claimed 20,000 lives as of April 16, 2020, but signs of recovery are finally beginning to surface. As I read about the ‘flattening curve’ in Spain, I can’t help but rue that the greatest recovery artist the country ever produced is no longer with us. What would Seve have said to his countrymen at this time of adversity? What could he have possibly done to uplift spirits at a time when his beloved country feels vanquished and demoralised?
I can only conjecture. One of the most poignant moments from the Ryder Cup (which really is a highlight reel of Seve’s greatest moments) came not when he led Europe to a win, but rather when his team lost in 1983. That year, Jack Nicklaus’ squad narrowly got the better of the continental squad at Palm Beach Gardens. Instead of ruing the loss, Seve famously made an emotionally charged speech in which he argued that such a close defeat was tantamount to a win. In an interview to Golf Digest, team member of that squad, former European number one, Sam Torrance reminisced, “The Sunday night at Palm Beach he was extraordinary. He made us all, even (Bernhard) Langer, shout out, ‘We will beat them.’ He had tears streaming down his face. It was ridiculous the amount of emotion that was shown. He said, ‘Don’t cry when we lose. Cry when we win. We are going to beat them.’ ”
Two years later, at the Belfry in 1985, Seve led the Europeans to victory for the first time since 1957. And then again in 1987, with a war cry of “You can win, we will win”, Seve exhorted his players to play out of their skins at Muirfield Village, and handed the Americans their first defeat ever on home soil.
Seve thrived on being in trouble; some would say he almost looked forward to the challenge of playing out of seemingly impossible situations. “Seve is never in trouble, even though he looks like he’s in thick of it on practically every hole,” Tom Kite famously said after Seve’s impossible final round at the Masters in 1983. Young players who’ve never got the opportunity to watch Seve would benefit immeasurably by watching replays of the Spaniard in action. And since we’re not going to get to watch the Masters this year, it’s probably appropriate to replay the final round from 1983. The story, as was usually the case with Seve’s wins, was the same: hardly any fairways hit, an impossible number of recoveries, insane clutch putts, and a hard-to-believe victory.
Coming back to the postponement of this year’s Masters Tournament. Apparently the committee had the option of conducting the event without spectators, but decided that The Masters would lose its character without the attendance of the gallery (‘patrons’ in Augusta’s lingo) and decided to push the tournament to November this year. As much of a killjoy that might be for fans around the world, the postponement certainly helps a few players, Tiger Woods among them. The Defending Champion has the unprecedented privilege of keeping the Green Jacket for another six months: good news given his recurring trouble with fitness this year.
Torrance recounted one of his favourite Seve stories (all players who played with Seve tend to have a repository of those). “Olly (Olazábal) said Seve was in a greenside bunker aiming at a pin 15 yards away over a flat green. You hit a bunker shot and 99 times out of 100 it will veer to the right with topspin or backspin. The sand moves it that way. Seve says to Olly: ‘Watch this,’ and he draws the ball when it lands on the putting surface. That’s impossible to do. It’s impossible. The guy was a genius,” Torrance told Golf Digest’s John Hopkins in an interview a few years back.
Seve’s life as a golfer mirrored his travails off the course. He had to work hard to convince his wife’s parents that he, a farmer’s son, was good enough to marry their daughter. He single-handedly took on the mantle of a European player crusading to win on American soil, often in the face of hostile and jeering galleries. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to convince European players that they were as good if not better than their American counterparts. And he had no qualms taking a stand with European Tour’s mandarins to be paid the same appearance money as was doled out by the Tour to American stars. But most of all, his life is a pean to raising the stock of golf in Spain and inspiring a league of spanish golfers to follow in his footsteps–a feat that will remain his most enduring legacy. Today as the country grapples with its biggest catastrophe since the Second World War, Seve would have been unquestionably upbeat about the future. What would he have done under the circumstances? He would have tried to pull off a miracle; he would have stayed upbeat; he certainly wouldn’t have given up.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game