Seve Ballesteros, who died in the small hours of Saturday morning from the brain tumor, which was diagnosed in October 2008, never said a more poignant farewell than when he announced his retirement on the eve of the 2007 Open at Carnoustie. The man who had done more than any other to bring the latter-day game to life, thanked the British people for the support they had given him across the years. “There was always a great feeling, always a good chemistry between us,” he said. “Most of my wins were down to them.”
He did a lot of blinking but stopped short of tears as he noted that he could have sent a press release and stayed at home. “It is because of the respect I have for everyone,” he said, “that I wanted to do this face to face.”
It goes without saying that his performance in the 2007 Masters had influenced his decision-making. Though he had not played at Augusta since 2003, he was radiating all his old enthusiasm as he stepped from his car on the Monday morning. “I’m here to celebrate turning 50,” he advised this correspondent. “My back’s better and I can’t wait to play.”
As much as anything else, he looked like a man who had found himself after a spate of troubled years in which things had reached a nadir in 2004, the year of his divorce from his wife, Carmen. The story went that this tortured soul had been seen hitting balls at his beloved Pedrena in the middle of the night.
Sadly, his dreams of playing well at Augusta were shattered. He had rounds of 86 and 80 to finish at the bottom of the heap, with much the same happening in what was his only appearance on the Champions Tour.
Almost inevitably, he was asked at Carnoustie for a few of his favourite career memories, with his performance in the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale furnishing the first of them. Someone had come into the locker room where he was sitting with his older brother, Manuel, and congratulated Manuel on his opening 69. “It wasn’t me,” said Manuel, “it was my little brother. I was just caddying for him.”
For the record, the then 19-year-old Seve finished in a share of second place with Jack Nicklaus behind Johnny Miller.
Everyone, of course, has his or her favorite Seve moment, with most opting for the 16th hole in his fourth round of 1979 Open at Lytham. Having dispatched his tee-shot under a car, he qualified for the free drop which paved the way for a birdie and what would be a three-shot win over Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw.
Many deemed it an outrageous touch of fortune but, as was so often the way, Seve knew how to deflate his critics. With a delicious touch of wry humor. To his way of thinking, it was less a matter of the ball being in the wrong place than the cars. “But then,“ he mused, “I suppose they’ve got to park them somewhere.”
He revelled in attempting the seemingly impossible and, when he captained the victorious European team in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, it was abundantly clear that he felt it would have been better had all the more difficult shots been left to him.
In which connection, there was a lovely moment when Montgomerie put Bernhard Langer in the trees and the two arrived at the scene to find Ballesteros plotting their escape. As the Spaniard turned to Montgomerie to expand on how the German golfer could hit under one branch and over the next, so Langer seized the chance to chop out sideways. “You always forgave him for anything, simply because he was Seve,” said Montgomerie. “We were desperate to win for him.”
Once Seve was ill, his memories of a career, which included five majors and a total of 87 titles, took on a different role. They became the positive thoughts that fueled his fight against cancer – a fight which involved four operations and endless chemotherapy. “Thank God,” he said last summer, “that I have so many positive things to think about.”
When the medical men would not permit a visit to last year’s Open, Ballesteros agreed to a BBC interview, during the course of which he chuckled, anew, at the fun he had in catching up with one of his wilder drives to find spectators discussing, “Which way is he going to go – this way or that way?”
Nothing, though, could disguise his hurt at missing out on life’s homeward half.
In his retirement, he had planned to do a bit of commentary, to continue with his course design, and to spend time with his three children. He was acutely conscious of having given away his teenage years to golf and he wanted to be around to see his offspring making the most of that period in their lives.
His illness put paid to that. They were living with their mother and pursuing their education in Madrid while he was back in Pedrena undergoing treatment. He was lonely and he did not pretend otherwise, especially on long winter evenings. “So tough,” he murmured.
Those who heard him speaking at Carnoustie in 2007 will even now be mulling over the words with which he concluded what was his last press conference in the UK.
“This,” he said, “is not a real good-bye. It’s a see you later.”