0

We wish you were here, Seve

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- When several former winners of the British Open championship gathered here yesterday for a four-hole exhibition, the most beloved European winner ever was missing.

It brings pause and regret when you consider that the man who meant as much to European golf in the 1970s and 80s as Arnold Palmer meant to U. S. golf in the 1960s is back home in Santander, Spain, fighting for his life.

Publications, especially the tabloids, paint the darkest picture for Seve Ballesteros's future -- bleak and foreboding -- akin to the weather here on the eve of the championship, which ultimately forced a cancellation of the exhibition of the former champions.

Initially, there was hope that Ballesteros would come and participate. Walk out on the old course where he elicited such response and acclaim when he won here in 1984, flashing a wide smile, an energetic fist pump, and foot-stomping glee as he birdied the final hole to edge out Tom Watson, a five-time winner who had his sights set on a sixth until he ran into problems at the 17th hole, the famous road hole.

When Seve birdied No. 18, it was over, and Watson's reign in golf's oldest championship shifted to Spain.

There was the hope that if Seve couldn't play a few holes, perhaps he could come and take a bow to an adoring golf populace. But doctors advised against that as well, suggesting that the emotional stress would be too much for the five-time major champion.

In a recent exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph -- featuring a photo of Seve with deep surgical scars in his forehead, the result of complications from brain surgery -- the interview had to be stopped at one point because the man, who won this championship three times and the Masters twice, could not control his sobbing.

News of Seve's complications are a reminder that his prominence in the Open championship once reflected a champion who was an artist. He was the master of the short game, owing to the fact that he learned to play golf on the beach with only one club, a five iron. We remember his swashbuckling style with which, like Arnold Palmer, he would assume any risk.

True to his heritage, Seve's emotions were over the top at high tide, but when there was that inevitable ebbing, his smile turned to a scowl. Sensitivity cloaked his being whether he was winning one of the 91 events of his career or when he felt that someone didn't like him or opted for disagreement.

No player ever rose to such heights and then had his game backslide so severely. His career was all too brief. Back problems led to swing complications, and there has never been a more tragic figure than when his game left him. When it was time for that rebirth -- the senior tour -- his game had disappeared. He simply could not play.

Ballesteros, divorced and living alone in a big house in Santander, has said that the British Open championship should be held at St. Andrews, his favorite place, every year. But there was a time when his affection for the Augusta National Golf Club got equal rank. In the early 1980s when he would come to Augusta on the weekend before Masters competition began, I often walked the course with him as he practiced -- usually alone, except for buddies who traveled with him.

Augusta, Seve said, reminded him of Santander -- the trees, the flowers, and the birds.

"The birds sing here like they do in Santander," he smiled. "The birds at Augusta make me homesick."

In their declining years, old champions often offer insight into the past and inspire us with walks down memory lane. We remember Seve Ballesteros with his smile when victory emerged, and his spontaneous outpouring of emotion was returned tenfold by doting British galleries.

On a rainy and biting afternoon on the 150th anniversary of the British Open, warm feelings trumped the elements when there was recall of Seve Ballesteros in his prime at St. Andrews.