Seve Ballesteros: Special talent – and man

Brian Murphy
In 1997, Seve Ballesteros was the captain of the victorious European squad at the Ryder Cup in Spain

The phrase goes, "They don't make 'em like that anymore," and sometimes it's a lazy cliché, and sometimes it's an over-romanticizing of days gone by. Maybe your dad says it wistfully about his old car: "They don't make 'em like that anymore," he sighs, while it teeters up the hill, polluting the air, getting 8 miles per gallon.

Today, we gather to say, with full sincerity and impact, earnest hearts filled with sadness, words we all mean more than ever: Seve Ballesteros is dead, and they don't make 'em like that anymore.

On the night of Seve's death, a half a world away in San Francisco, Willie Mays celebrated his 80th birthday, and in the montage of clips and volume of remembrances, you arrived at the understanding that there were baseball players, and then there was Willie Mays: hat flying, legs churning, power coiled in a swing, knowledge of the game spilling out of his being at all times.

Likewise, there were great golfers, and then there was Seve Ballesteros: golf shots rescued from the most unlikely of places, putts sunk at critical moments and celebrated with a smile both defiant and joyous, an intense spirit emanating from his body as he stalked a golf course, dark Spanish hair wind-whipped, an olive-skinned, angular face, a twinkle in the eye, demanding attention.

None like him before, none like him since.

The words poured forth from his peers and from writers to describe a life cut short at 54. Look at the words chosen: "greatest show on Earth," said Nick Faldo; "inventiveness may never be surpassed," said Tiger Woods; "enthusiasm unmatched by anybody who ever played the game," said Jack Nicklaus; "none will have his charisma," said his countryman, Jose Maria Olazabal. The AP obituary included the words "fearless" and "fire" and "passion."

We're left to mourn an inventive and enthusiastic showman, whose fearless play and passion bore the mark of an unsurpassed charisma.

That's a hell of a legacy, Severiano.

We love the game of golf, so it's important to be careful not to denigrate the kids who are playing the game today. There are players who do create thrills and memories, yes. For starters, we will likely never see a player with the forceful brilliance of Tiger Woods again in our lifetimes. And Phil Mickelson's savoir-faire and gutsiness is a first cousin of Seve's game. The Europeans who dominated the Ryder Cup in the last decade-plus – Darren Clarke, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, and others – played the Cup with the same unity and pride that Seve established in that first European win back in 1985.

But today we are mourning the life of a player who combined all of the above, a player who didn't just feature one or two of the above qualities.

There are those who say Tiger Woods' prolonged winless streak is terrible for the game, that golf needs legends to thrive. That may well be true. Critics of today's game say the winners of today lack flair, play tame golf, feature milquetoast personalities and, in short, bore them.

If those critics are true, we must mourn Seve all the more intently. When he walked on to a golf course, none of those qualities applied, ever. The man allowed no compromises in his game, or his life.

Another criticism of today's game – perhaps a fair one – is the lack of promise reached by young talent. Whether because of withering pressure, or the security of top-10 paychecks in a big-money landscape, the only player to break Seve's 1984 record of winning the Masters at age 23 was Tiger, when he won at age 21 in 1997. It takes guts and skill and hair to come to Augusta National as a puppy and stare down Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and the pressure, but Seve was the man to do it. To him, pressure was just another up-and-down.

Oh, and that wasn't his first major: At age 22, Seve won the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham, riding the famed "Car Park Birdie" to victory. Imagine the hoopla today for a 22-year-old having cars moved from a parking lot, then making bird en route to the world's oldest major, kissing the Claret Jug and smiling the gleaming smile of a kid, a shimmering future ahead, the golf world at his feet.

So count yet another legacy in the life of Seve Ballesteros, the legacy of potential fulfilled.

Perhaps the modern era of media scrutiny, of a 24/7 Golf Channel and multiple web sites and bloggers has stunted the growth of the next Seve. Perhaps the kids who have a chance to be like Seve – Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler and Jason Day and other youngsters just entering their prime – are subjected to too much poking and prodding to reach full flower. Maybe it's true. After all, it's been over 30 years since Seve won those majors at Lytham and Augusta, and the only player to match the feat is Tiger, and even Tiger would concede that he didn't do it with the free and easy spirit with which Seve did it.

Then again, the alternative explanation is more likely: Seve Ballesteros' DNA, his wiring, his very being, was different from all the rest.

The final words of his brother will move anyone who reads them. Brothers can be rivals, or jealous, or words can fail them when their brothers pass. But as if blessed by the Ballesteros gene of flair, Baldomero Ballesteros said of his departed sibling: "I held his hands, caressed them and thought: 'What these hands have done in the world.' … He knew he was dying, and what is leaving us is more than a brother, a son or a father; what is leaving us is glory."