Story 6 Ballesteros Battle

By Brian HewittDecember 19, 2008, 5:00 pm
The great Severiano Ballesteros is still alive. What has not survived is the prime of his professional golf career. For the longest time, late this year, it didnt look like Ballesteros himself was going to live through a fierce battle with brain cancer.
The good news for him and the golf world ' that followed, from near and far, the guarded reports from Spain of his struggle ' is that, yes, the great Severiano Ballesteros is still alive.
So what follows is an obituary only for a golf game that long ago ceased to function as it had in his glorious golfing youth. Actually, this is more of a celebration of that glory. Lord knows its better to celebrate when the subject of the recognition is still among us.
The cancer arrived without much warning in early October when Ballesteros, 51, collapsed in a Madrid airport. The attack left doctors trying to explain why with words and phrases like edema and intracerebral hematoma and great complexity.
They might as well have been trying to make us understand how it was Ballesteros was able to famously get it up and down at the 16th from that car park to win the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
He brought a gleam of sunshine to a game that, until then, mainly involved umbrellas, wrote one Englishman of the Spaniard.
Former world No. 1 Nick Price, a South African and a Ballesteros contemporary, put it this way: When Seve was in full flight, the sky was the limit. Most of us have about 100 ways to shoot a 66. Seve had about 10,000 ways to shoot a 66.
To be sure, Seve played his best golf at a fever pitch, daring you to catch him if you could. Pitch and Catch. If Seve Ballesteros had been a baseball player he would have been a fireballer for sure. He was a roaring blast furnace of an athlete. But he could also get you out with his guile.
More appropriately, if he had been a matador, Ballesteros striking looks would have made the women at the corrida swoon; his skills with the cape and sword would have stirred even Hemingway; and his daring would have summoned comparisons to the storied toreros, Manolete and the wondrous Juan Belmonte.
Seve didnt play golf so much as he painted the game on a canvas you couldnt buy in any art supply store. The brushes of brilliant countrymen Velazquez and Goya didnt make a sound. But, por favor, a moment of silence today for the beautiful noise Seve made with his clubs.
His surpassing athletic gifts deserted him much too early without even leaving a forwarding address. Never straight off the tee, his driver couldnt keep the ball on the world in recent years.
So Ballesteros spent much of his last two playing decades, often bitter and contentious, lost in a torment you could see in his eyes. For every metaphor his golf had inspired, there were now 1,000 missed fairways that tortured his sporting soul and defaced too many of his scorecards.
The record books will show Ballesteros won 94 titles including six European Orders of Merit and five major championships ' three British Opens and two Masters. He played on three victorious Ryder Cup teams and added one more triumph as captain in 1997 at Valderrama in his native land.
The Ryder Cup was his passion, providing Europe with 20 full points and five halves in 37 matches. It was also the arena in which his competitive passion ' certain Americans called it gamesmanship ' fully surfaced. Say what you will, but Ballesteros, more than anybody else before or after, knew what the Ryder Cup meant to him.
The Americans nobly play for the honor of their own flag. But to this day they havent consistently figured out how to work up a proper motivation to beat the amorphous Europe. The Europeans, on the other hand, waste little pride defending their continents reputation, saving their energies instead for the task of beating the Americans. Ballesteros was the poster boy for this mindset from the moment Great Britain and Ireland were allowed to add continentals to their side in 1979.
But there was even more than that with Ballesteros when it came to the Ryder Cup. It was personal. John Hopkins, the distinguished golf voice of The Times of London, called it Seves personal medieval crusade.
It was popular for a long time to describe Ballesteros as the Arnold Palmer of European golf. Truth is, their differences were greater than their similarities. Mark Twain once said, The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. But for all that, Palmer and Ballesteros were the only two players of the latter part of the 20th century who could correctly be described as dashing and/or swashbuckling. Greg Norman was a distant third.
It is, Norman said, while Ballesteros was fighting his way through the four brain surgeries, a bit of a reality check for all of us at that age.
Golf historians will tell you there are no more than three or four dozen golfers who ever lived that deserved the label great. Ballesteros was one of them. But what makes him different than the others, from a recognition standpoint, is the importance of television to the growth of the game.
There are newsreels and video footage available of Jones, Hagen, Nelson, Snead, Sarazen and others. But Ballesteros was the first great player whose greatest achievements on the course were almost all recorded on live television. We know him so much better that way than we do his predecessors.
And that helps explain the massive outpouring of worldwide support that followed the news that doctors had discovered the brain tumor. Everybody who had been paying even the least bit of attention, it seemed, had a Seve story.
One of the best came from Mark Simon, a native Augustan and an unabashed golf fan. In 1983, the year Ballesteros won his first Masters, Seve and his compadres rented a house across Washington Road from Augusta National.
According to Simon, Ballesteros and one of his friends set up a chipping course around their rented house and yard. They played it every morning and later in the day after his rounds. They allowed very few of us to be in the gallery, Simon said. Of course, being Augustans, we know how to respect our heroes.
Simons story conjures up images right out of a Dan Jenkins novel where his buddies would make bets on who could get a golf ball from the first tee at Goat Hills into a shoe in somebodys closet across town.
Who wouldnt have wanted to see Seve chipping and pitching from the garden, through the front hallway, up the staircase and off the balcony onto the chaise lounge? How much could the scalpers have gotten for one of those tickets?
Or as Lee Trevino once said of Ballesteros: He could get it up and down from a running cement mixer.
A worldwide prayer vigil continued for Seve much of October and November. It was noted that the malignant tumor on the brain of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy had turned up in June and he was still alive. It was also noted, over and over, by those that knew him closely that Ballesteros was a fighter.
By the middle of December Ballesteros was an outpatient. He apologized for being difficult with the doctors. Former Ryder Cup opponents knew that part of him. Seve Ballesteros was not above petulance.
Then this statement appeared on his Web site: There is a long recovery time ahead and I shall keep on fighting with patience and determination.Thanks to them (the doctors) I will be able to play the mulligan of my life, which I expect to enjoy at my best. Six days before Christmas Ballesteros began chemotherapy treatments at his home in northern Spain.
So it is that the life of Seve Ballesteros has been one, long brilliant storm. During his golfing heyday he was every bit as hard on himself as he would be on the doctors this year. His physiognomy back then was like one of those speeded up elapsed time clocks ' all flashing smiles and bright white teeth one moment and dark-complected disappointment and frustration the next.
He was a prisoner of his own talent and emotions. And that talent tormented those emotions when it revealed how good he could be at his best only to wag a finger in his face when he came up short.
Everybody loses their game eventually. But for now, Ballesteros still has his life.
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