CHARLOTTE, N.C. – “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.”
It was quintessential Seve – bold, to the point and utterly unapologetic. Ballesteros delivered the gem one year at the Masters after a particularly ugly four-putt. In many ways it defined the man, if not an entire generation.
Ballesteros was a magician minus the mirrors, getting up and down from a car park, a stone wall, anywhere really. If there were a backswing and a bet to be won he was at his slashing best.
In the end the only pinch he could not scramble out of was cancer, although he took the awful disease to extra holes. To say this morning’s tee sheet was missing something misses the point.
Ballesteros played golf like good jazz, jazz that you laugh at.
Paul Casey could only laugh one spring morning too many years ago to remember. He’d idolized the Spaniard since he could grip a golf club, marveled at his flair and is quick to count him as his hero. So when the Englishman got paired with Ballesteros at the Spanish Open early in his career, it was like Christmas in May.
“I was nervous as hell,” Casey recalled. “I’d watched him my whole life hitting these rockets out of the trees and now I had a chance to play with him.”
The first hole was a par 5 and, on cue, the often-wayward Ballesteros hit his second shot onto a stone wall separating the golf course from a housing development.
“Out comes the wedge and he hits this almost splash shot off the wall to 6 feet and makes the birdie,” Casey smiles widely. “Right there and then I could have walked in.”
If Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus paved the way for modern American professionals, Ballesteros created a template that practically every European aspired to replicate.
“He did a lot for the European Tour like Arnie did over here,” said Justin Rose, affectionately calling Ballesteros the “car park champion” in honor of his 1979 Open Championship victory.
Young Tiger Woods hit putts late into California nights to win the Masters, like Jack. Little Europeans, regardless of nationality, roped 3-irons over and around trees to claim the claret jug. I am Seve.
Ballesteros’ five majors made an entire continent believe and his verve lifted their collective consciousness. Not only could they win the big one, they could do it with style.
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“There’s no doubt him winning the majors and leading the charge into the U.S. certainly made it easier for us,” Padraig Harrington said.
It is a legacy that transcended time and a terminal disease.
Even Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, who was 7 when Ballesteros won his last major (1988 British Open), made the man a model.
“A lot of European golf is what it is now due to Seve for the most part,” Molinari said early Saturday at Quail Hollow. “Everybody back in Europe, no matter what country you are from, had Seve as a hero.”
Molinari fondly remembered the inspirational phone call Ballesteros made to the European Ryder Cup team before last year’s matches. Even in his twilight Ballesteros had enough magic to go around.
It’s not just that he won – Nick Faldo won majors, Bernhard Langer won majors – it’s the way in which he enforced his will on a leaderboard or an opponent. Whether it was a lash against a gale at St. Andrews or a gutty half point at The Belfry, Ballesteros exuded a spirit that was contagious to an entire Continent.
No one has matched Ballesteros’ larger-than-life persona, but he gave an entire continent something to shoot for, a blueprint that little ones from Berlin to Belfast could emulate.“He was a guy I wanted to watch because you always knew his golf was exciting,” an emotional Casey said on Friday. “Seve had it all. It was the flair, the smile, the never-say-die attitude that was very attractive.”
Ultimately, it was even the way he passed.
“That’s when you see the real strength in people when they are dealing with something like (a brain tumor),” Rose said. “He showed a lot of class.”
Quietly early Saturday morning European golf lost a trailblazer, a patriarch of an entire generation. Some golfers win championships and money, Ballesteros won over an entire continent.
The Europeans will carry on in Ballesteros’ image – bold, to the point and utterly unapologetic. Fittingly it is the greatest tribute to one of the game’s greatest competitors.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggardGC