ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – A sand wedge and a pair of worn white golf shoes stuck inside a glass museum case are all anyone will see of Seve Ballesteros this week at the British Open.
Ballesteros hoped to be on hand at the Old Course for a four-hole exhibition of past champions commemorating the 150th anniversary of the game’s oldest major. But his recovery from a brain tumor that nearly killed him has kept Europe’s most influential golfer ever close by the fishing village where he first learned to play the game, along Spain’s wind-swept northern coast.
Howling gusts and sideways rain forced cancellation of Wednesday’s exhibition, but did little to dim the memories of the man or his momentous win here in 1984. Ballesteros sent a video that was played at a dinner inside the Royal and Ancient clubhouse at St. Andrew for his former fellow champions. Not long after it ended, they voted to donate the 50,000 pounds ($76,394) in prize money to the Seve Ballesteros Foundation, established for brain tumor research.
“He said, “I wish I could be there. I wish I had the energy to be there,” and he wished us all the best of luck,” said five-time Open champion Tom Watson, who finished two shots behind Ballesteros, tied for second, in 1984.
“It was sad. It was sad to see him,” Watson added. “He’s obviously struggling at this point, and it’s sad to see that.”
Ballesteros’ most recent interview took place at his home with Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz, who imagined the Spaniard’s opening tee shot on the game’s most prestigious stage as “golf’s version of Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Summer Games.”
Like Ali, Ballesteros’ flamboyance and his fierce independence rubbed some of the people in authority the wrong way. And like Arnold Palmer, he was a crowd favorite nearly everywhere he went, though few galleries anywhere loved him more than the Scots. When his 15-foot birdie putt at the final hole dropped languidly into cup in that 1984 win, a roar erupted that shivered up and down the coast.
Back in the United States, a promising young golfer named Stewart Cink was watching on TV.
“Our playing careers never crossed, but what I remember, what I’ll always remember about Seve,” Cink recalled Wednesday, “was the way he thrust his fist into the air and then turned to the crowd in just about every direction and did it again and again.
“I’m not sure people back home ever really appreciated how good he was,” Cink, the defending champion, added a moment later. “His English was only so-so … but even his game seemed like a foreign language. You’d see him hit all those incredible shots, but because the courses over here look brown and bumpy on TV, a lot of people just thought, ‘That’s the kind of stuff you do at a muni.’
He shook his head slowly, then let out a low whistle.
“They have no idea,” Cink finally said.
Despite winning two Masters to go with his three Opens and almost single-handedly igniting the game on the continent – similar to the way Palmer popularized golf in America – Ballesteros never received his due back in the U.S. Yet it wasn’t just the language barrier, or even the way his charisma and all those remarkable recovery shots – including one from a parking lot – got lost in translation. Much of what put off Americans, no doubt, was simply Ballesteros’ competitiveness and over-the-top delight at punishing the U.S. squad in several Ryder Cups.
“That only made him more of a hero to us,” countryman Miguel Angel Jimenez said. “There were so few models for many of us when we began playing, but it was not just his swing. It was how he walked, like a leader all the time, how he never lost his fighting spirit, no matter how much trouble he was in.
“It was so many things,” he added. “So many.”
Jimenez said the last time the two spoke was two months ago. Asked how Ballesteros seemed at the time, he raised both arms in a gesture that seemed to say, “Who knows?”
Palmer, too, has been in touch.
“I sent Seve a note,” he said, “wished him well and invited him to come, if he ever felt good enough, to the States and play.”
Tucked in with the letter was a photograph of Palmer’s dog, Mulligan. It made Ballesteros’ day.
“Because the doctors saved my life, they say now I use my mulligan,” Ballesteros told Golf Digest with a chuckle. “So Palmer’s picture says, ‘Here’s a Mulligan for you.”’