Robinson: Ballesteros charmed golf world
After the finality and sadness upon learning of Seve Ballesteros' death, one couldn't help but crack a smile.
Diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour more than two and a half years ago, Ballesteros lived more than twice as long as most people who face the same grim prospect.
Imagine, Severiano Ballesteros stretching the odds, squeezing more life out of such a dire situation.
Ballesteros was 54 years old when he died Saturday at his home in Pedrena, Spain. Taken far too young, but leaving a golf legacy that won't soon be forgotten.
From the time he burst upon the scene as a 19-year-old, finishing second at the 1976 British Open, Ballesteros had the golf world in the palm of his hand for the next two decades. On the course, his best attribute was to recover from seemingly any peril that presented itself. That ability was the chief reason why Ballesteros won five major championships and scores of other professional tournaments the world over.
More significantly, Ballesteros also came along at a time when European golf was in its infancy. The game hadn't taken hold on the continent the way it had in the "New World" nations, when Scottish and English pros brought it to countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa.
Then along came Seve.
Though he was neither the first nor the only elite player from his home country – he was part of one of Spain's most prominent golf families – he became the face of European golf and the chief reason why players from the continental nations were added to the formerly British/Irish squad at the Ryder Cup. His presence may well have saved the competition and the European Tour as we know it today.
With Ballesteros's rare mix of shot-making and showmanship, combined with the emergence soon after of German Bernard Langer and the regeneration of British players, led by Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, European golf had arrived.
Fourteen years ago, Ballesteros's winning captaincy on his country's home soil and the pictures of him kissing the vase is perhaps the most iconic moment in European golf.
Today, Europe is in even better shape, numerically dominating the world rankings, the Ryder Cup and producing major champions again, and that crop, be it current world No. 1 Lee Westwood or the legions of elite touring pros that Spain now produces, to a man, will tell you that Ballesteros inspired them as young boys.
Combining all that with the way Ballesteros handled himself leaves such a lasting effect. Despite the individual nature of the sport, the connection he had with his European Ryder Cup teammates — many of whom played for him in the victory at Valderrama in 1997 — is all you need to know about how much he was admired by his peers.
To a certain generation of North Americans, Ballesteros had the swagger of a mysterious, exotic Spanish movie star (his good looks didn't hurt) with a golf game to match. If you're an American or Canadian fan of a certain age, your first impression of European golf likely came with him.
And yet there was a kindness and charisma to his swagger that was unique even to his generation of players. He famously struggled to speak English, but his attempts to convey his feelings in the language still had a deep meaning, with a whimsical flair - to wit, his explanation for once four-putting a green: "I miss, I miss, I miss, I make."
'Here he will remain'
Ballesteros died at home and, after a small, intimate ceremony next week, his ashes will remain in the village where he grew up in northern Spain.
It's not a shot at modern-day stars, but it's hard to imagine the greats of today or tomorrow having such a grand simplicity when they depart this earthly coil.
"The funeral rites will be as simple as those for any neighbour from the village," said his brother, Baldomero, in a statement put out by the local government announcing his death. "He was born here and here he will remain."
This narrative finishes with a Canadian angle.
Six years ago, I approached Jerry Anderson, who was practising on the range where he was teaching at Ingersoll Golf Club in the small Ontario town of the same name. A winner on the European Tour, Anderson, until recently, held that tour's scoring record.
Small talk ensued before Anderson was asked about Ballesteros. To that point Anderson hadn't paid much attention to the conversation with someone he didn't know, but perked up at the mention of the name.
"Seve?" asked Anderson in one of those one-word responses you could tell meant much more. "I have a lot of time for Seve."
It's a sentiment well worth remembering in the aftermath of the great man's death.