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Seve the Conquistador

Dermot Gilleece laments the loss of the much loved player to the gold community

Posted May 10, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


On his native terrain in the Majorca Open of 1993, a clearly distressed Seve Ballesteros repeatedly bit his lower lip while attempting to cope with a cruelly destructive game.  All the while, his caddie, Billy Foster, was becoming increasingly upset by his master's torment at figures soaring towards 20-over-par.  Finally, he could take no more.   

In a voice trembling with emotion, the young Yorkshireman turned to him on the 10th tee.  "Let's go in," he urged.  "There's no point in torturing yourself any more."   Whereupon Ballesteros replied:  "No Billy.  We are professionals.  We must battle, regardless.  We will carry on and finish the job."

On the Saturday of the US Masters last month, Foster was preparing for the third round with current employer, Lee Westwood, when he suddenly remembered something.  It was Seve’s birthday and he would to send a congratulatory text.  So he headed from the clubhouse area for his mobile phone which, under Augusta National rules, had to remain in the caddieshack.  Later, Foster told me solemnly:  “It would have been terrible to miss this one because there may not be another birthday.”  Sadly, his sense of foreboding was well founded.  

No player can provoke such memories as the much-loved conquistador.  I have a rather special reason for recalling his appearance at Druids Glen in 2001 to promote the staging of the Seve Trophy there a year later.  It was, in fact, the silver jubilee of his first ever-visit to Dublin in the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1976, when he was fifth behind the winner, Ben Crenshaw.

As part of the Druids Glen promotion, we had the sight of a Seve special when he went down on his knees and whacked a three-wood onto the island green at the 190-yard 17th hole.  And it won him a bottle of Rioja, his favourite tipple, on the foot of a bet made with John Dully, chief executive of Failte Ireland, over dinner the previous night.

"It wasn't as good as the shot at Royal Dublin," Ballesteros conceded, in a reference to the clinic he gave, free of charge, on the Tuesday evening of Irish Open week in August 1983. "That was a really good one," he added with a broad grin, about a driver hit off his knees onto the green at the 255-yard 16th.  Another memory of that particular evening was watching him play miraculous recoveries from a greenside bunker on the 18th, with an open-faced two iron.

From my perspective, it was also a time when I was decìdedly fortunate not to have been afforded the opportunity of exchanging words with him.  It should be noted that the Royal Dublin staging marked an eagerly-awaited return to the tournament for Ballesteros, who had missed the 1981 and 1982 events through a dispute with the European Tour over appearance fees.  So, when he offered to mark his comeback with the clinic for youngsters, I noted in "The Irish Times" that it was no more than he was entitled to do, given his two-year absence.

Having played in the US the previous week, Ballesteros came to Dublin via London. And as my luck would have it, the only newspaper he could lay his hands on during the flight was the one I wrote for at that time.  And he became extremely angry after reading what he viewed as a very unfair piece by your humble scribe.

Indeed he was still seething when he was met at Dublin Airport by Paddy Rossi of the sponsoring company, Carrolls.  "Who this man Gilleechay?" he stormed, brandishing a copy of the offending newspaper.  "Why he do this thing to me?"  Then, with Rossi attempting to calm him down, he demanded there should be a printed retraction.

Given that the Carrolls man made me aware of this little contretemps, you will understand why I made no special effort to meet, one-to-one, with the bold Seve that week.  And as the tournament progressed and he achieved a dominant position en route to ultimate victory, his memory of my criticism began to fade.  Indeed he never, ever mentioned it, despite the countless meetings we had over subsequent years.

He was the first, real star of European golf, with looks and demeanour to match incomparable talent.  I always thought of him as remarkably bright, intellectually, in his dealings with the media, though there were those who attributed his remarkable, manipulative skills to no more than native cunning.

Either way, he was a born winner who came to dominate his chosen pursuit, certainly on this side of the pond. His impact on the Ryder Cup was incalculable, prompting erstwhile skipper, Tony Jacklin, to remark: "Seve's passion and conviction have been so fantastic that he has made things happen which couldn't otherwise have happened. It is something only a really great player could do and it's been wonderful to see."

For those of us involved in writing about golf, he became a huge part of our lives.  Which is why we are going to miss him so much.

- Dermot Gilleece

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