Usually, the most vivid memories of Augusta have their origins on the course. Mine, on the other hand, came about in the clubhouse carpark on the Monday of 2007 Masters week.
I thought that the golfer who had just stepped from a perfectly ordinary US rental car that morning looked a bit like Seve Ballesteros, only then I decided that my guess was probably a little far-fetched. After all, the Spaniard had not appeared at Augusta since 2003.
An elderly Augusta member stepped forward to embrace whoever it was, and it was only once the two had disentangled themselves that I could decide one way or the other. It was Seve, only a younger-looking version of this charismatic champion, leaner and seemingly happier than had been seen in years.
The member disappeared, leaving Seve to me. A rare situation indeed. Wary though he had been of the press for several years, he greeted me with the widest of smiles. “I’m here to celebrate turning 50,” he said. “My back’s much better, I’m ready to play and I’m ready to remember the good things.”
Away from the golf, he was looking forward to the Champions Dinner. He had hosted two of those himself – in 1981, after returning as the youngest winner of the Masters, at least until Tiger Woods came along, and again in 1984.
And after the Masters, Ballesteros said he had it in mind to play a few events on what then was called the Champions Tour. “I’m not worried about making money – I’ve never played for the money – but I’m out to have fun and keep myself in good golfing shape,” he said.
He spoke of exercises and diets and how he had lost at least a stone since Tiger Woods’ 2006 Open win at Royal Liverpool. Then he volunteered, out of nowhere, that he had not uncovered any of the game’s secrets: “I don’t think there are any secrets to golf or life. It’s more a matter of being constant in what you’re doing and working hard.”
The day we met at Augusta there was every sign that he had finally found himself and that he was out to enjoy life’s homeward half.
At this point, we were joined by Charles Coody, who won at Augusta in 1971. Normally, at such a moment, I would have left the two golfers to talk between themselves, but Ballesteros beckoned me to stay.
Coody said he had heard the rumours and he wanted to know whether Seve was really planning to play with the old boys. “It’s more relaxed than the main tour but not as relaxed as it was,” Coody said. Seve replied he had guessed as much from watching on TV.
As Coody went on his way, I asked Ballesteros if he would be playing in a few events on the European senior circuit so that he could be closer to old friends and nearer to home. He muttered something about the better weather in the States before admitting that he had no intention whatsoever of playing in Europe.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I’ll leave that to your imagination,” he said, his smile shot with hurt.
“I think I know,” I muttered.
At that we said goodbye and he said he looked forward to seeing me later in the week.
That last exchange embraced a litany of bad things. In trying to find his swing, Ballesteros had fallen foul of European Tour officials for slow play, with a thoroughly uncomfortable incident happening at the 2003 Italian Open when he refused to accept a one-stroke penalty. He made a very public production of changing the penalty-inflated 5 on his card to a 4 and, that same day, he referred to European Tour officialdom as “nearly like mafia.”
In 2004, he pinned a referee by name of José María Zamora up against the wall in Seve’s own clubhouse in Pedreña, Spain. The incident was linked to two slow-play warnings the year before, one of them in Madeira. Inevitably, the story did not take long to make the front pages.
Also in 2004, Ballesteros and his wife, Carmen, were divorced.
By then, the once-great player was at his lowest ebb. There was talk of him hitting balls at Pedreña under cover of darkness. And in that same summer, he let the media know that the biggest mistake he had ever made was to start playing as a professional at 16. “I lost all my growing up years,” he said. “I haven’t had a normal life.”
The day we met at Augusta there was every sign that he had finally found himself and that he was out to enjoy life’s homeward half. But much to his chagrin his golf did not match up to his heady expectations. He finished at the foot of the field both that week and in his first senior sortie.
Yet on the Friday of the 2007 Masters, it was briefly as if he were a winner again.
Thousands of fans followed him up the 18th to cheers which grew louder and louder and morphed into a standing ovation as he holed from 3 feet to add an 80 to his opening 86.
Not that anyone knew it at the time, but it would be his final visit to Augusta.
When he turned up at Carnoustie in July, it was to announce his retirement and to say he wanted people to know there was no truth in the rumour he had attempted suicide.
In 2008, the most dashing golfer of them all was diagnosed with a brain tumour and, in May 2011, he died of brain cancer, aged 54.
Top: Seve Ballesteros walks to the second green during the second round of the 2007 Masters. Photo: Harry How, Getty Images
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