Saturday, May 07, 2011


Seve Ballesteros, who died last night at the age of 54, was, hands down, the most enjoyable professional golfer to watch in my lifetime.

By watch, I mean be there in person and follow around for 18 holes. TV didn't come close to capturing what Ballesteros did. The reason golf commentators are always saying "this is a really difficult shot" when on the tube it appears a golfer is maybe three feet off the fairway or green is that they can see the difficulty, and television can't show it. Maybe 3-D will change that someday.

But walking with Ballesteros, even when he was winning tournaments, was to see a golfer confronting difficulty, make that impossibility. Thanks to driving the ball no more accurately than any 15 handicapper, a walk with Seve was a tour of parts unknown. He had to be the best golfer ever at hitting shots that can't be hit, since he was the best golfer at creating those impossibilities in the first place.

Exhibit A of course is the approach shot Ballesteros hit to make a birdie in one of his Open championship victories after his drive landed in one of the parking lots. For those of you who've never been to a golf tournament, they put the parking lots a very long way from the playing field. In a documentary on Ballesteros recently shown on the Golf Channel, Tom Lehman recalled his singles match with Seve in the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill. Ballesteros had nothing that day in terms of a swing. He failed to hit a fairway off the tee for his first nine holes. He was also even after nine, however, stealing pars with that most seldom-used of human attributes, creative imagination.

My own recollection is of walking part of a round with Ballesteros at the 1988 U.S. Open at the Country Club. Like all Open courses, it was set up on the principle that missing the fairway should equal missing par. More often than not, Ballesteros wound find his ball in parts of Brookline that could've been designated National Wilderness Areas. That's when the fun began. The spectator began to think "What's he gonna do now?" The spectator couldn't help identifying with Ballesteros as he attempted to deal with potential disaster. The spectator had been there before.

Almost nobody who watches golf doesn't also play golf. Most golfers, me most especially included, suck. It's a hard game. One of the reasons we suck is that we keep hitting the damn ball in the places Ballesteros did. The shots he faced are the shots that hackers ruefully remember after each round. That's because they then go on to put a snowman (8 for you nongolfers). Ballesteros made pars. He mastered disaster better than any golfer before or since.

Watching the latest Oklahoma State dropout on Tour hit 340 yard drives and short irons into the greens on par 5s is impressive. It's not, to me anyway, especially entertaining. And it surely doesn't make one identify with the athlete. Quite the reverse. We hacks know that's a different sport than ours.

I don't want to exaggerate here. Ballesteros hit the ball a long way. Ballesteros had all the dull technical merits of his trade. He was a pro, playing that different sport. But more often than any of his peers, Ballesteros had to come down from Olympus and play the goddamn, baffling, hateful sport we hacks play if he was going to win. And that was when he was his very best. He was a Genius Hack, if you will. He was not just a champion, he was in a very real way THE champion for all the poor suffering devils out on the world's driving ranges beating their souls against the implacable impossibility of golf.

Add good looks and a winning personality and it's no wonder Seve was a star beyond his considerable accomplishments. Those include, BTW, being the person most responsible for turning the Ryder Cup from an afterthought into the delightfully cutthroat high-stakes popular success it is today. Gamesmanship was a club in his bag, and while golf frowns on its practice, it's pretty much universally in play in every weekend foursome.

Golf of all the sports takes itself the most seriously -- a pity, since it's so much fun to play. Ballesteros made it fun for spectators, which when you get down to it is one of the primary job skills of any professional athlete. I do not wish to violate his memory by dragging a little too much heaviness into what's meant to be a happy memory to mark a very sad occasion.

But I can't help saying that if real life shares one thing with golf, it's this. Both feature a great many trouble shots. May we all find a touch of Seve's imagination when addressing the ball, wherever it lies.


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