The great Spanish golfer, Seve Ballesteros, succumbed early Saturday morning to his three year battle with brain cancer. He was 54.
Television and the Twitter universe crackled all day long with love, loss, eulogies, remembrances, personal stories and descriptions of his greatness, his genius. They talked about the beauty of his swing, his daring, swashbuckling style of play and, of course, his shot from the parking lot at the 1979 British Open to win.
They talked about his almost singlehandedly breathing life into the European Tour and his inspiration to the European Ryder Cup teams. They talked about his quiet generosity, taking young, inexperienced players down to the practice bunker for a couple of hours of gratis coaching. One of them was a still incredulous Robert Allenby, then a 19-year-old Aussie rookie who had no connection to Ballesteros other than a couple of practice rounds. And the coaching invariably included hitting preposterous, touch, greenside bunker shots with a 3-iron…with backspin.
But what most people spent their time on was the genius of his short game. They talked about creativity, inventiveness, seeing shots unseen by any other player and one of the best from the great Jack Nicklaus, “able to get up and down from a garbage can.” And they talked about some of his most memorable shots.
But what nobody really talked about was what Seve felt in those shots. And just how did he do it? What went into them?
Well first of all, there is the genius he was granted by God. He had so many years of practice as a little boy on the beach at his home, handling a golf club became second nature to him. With his legendary 3-iron, he would hit rocks all up and down the beach. He came to be able to handle that golf club the way the rest of us handle a fork.
So with that skill being an inextricable part of who he was, he never thought about it when he played. He would come to a golf shot, for example, over a greenside bunker to a pin tight on his side of the green and that was all he saw. He would examine the lie of the ball as he approached to see what kind of shot would be possible, but after that, his attention was completely invested in the shot. He did not see the other players. He did not see the gallery.
All he saw was an intuitive, three dimensional vision of the shot: where would it land, how high or low that was from where he was standing, which way the green sloped, how far the ball would roll and how high he would have to hit it to make that happen. It was an expansive, freeform, artistic creation in his mind’s eye. And because his ability to manipulate his golf club was intrinsic, there was nothing mechanical about it.
His calculation would automatically include whether to land the ball on the fringe or the green, what kind of grasses he was dealing with, how cold it was, how much wind there was, how constraining his clothing was and any other tertiary element that could affect the shot. But he wouldn’t stop and think about it; he would just automatically include it from experience. It would be like thoughtlessly pulling a file folder from his cabinet of experience.
He would take his sand wedge (a number of people said he never had more than a 55 degree sand wedge) still engrossed, still transfixed by the shot. He never worried about ball position, he never worried about how open his stance should be and he never even thought about how much he needed to open the blade of his wedge.
For this hypothetical very high shot, the ball would be forward in his stance, his stance would be very open to allow his body to turn out of the way of his swinging arms and his wedge would be so wide open the back of it would almost seem to be laying on the grass.
He would take a couple of full-range-of-motion swings so that his body could feel what he was seeing on the green and in his mind, each swing whose only purpose was to inoculate his coming effort with freedom, with fluidity, with enjoyment, with connection to the whole of it. His eyes would never leave the landing spot, his mind would never stop calculating its relation to the hole.
He wouldn’t know how many practice swings until he felt the last one congeal with the vision…he would step to the ball with the briefest of pauses…and then he would let it go.
Without even thinking about it or how to do it, he would swing the clubhead away to the top of however big the swinging motion was. And in a seamless motion he would swing the clubhead back down in a fearless, unconstrained, accelerating motion through the ball.
He would not feel impact—only the swishing through the grass—and as his head rotated up, his eyes would go right to the spot, not the ball floating high above his head. The target orients everything even after the ball is gone, and particularly as the shot is added to the kinesthetic inventory of all the ones before.
As if in a trance, he would wait for the ball to come down in his field of vision, he would notice how close it came to his target and he would watch the ball roll to the hole. Mesmerized, he would not stop watching until he could see with certainty where the ball would stop.
And invariably the ball landed right where he intended, went very close to or in the hole and his trance was broken by the explosive joy and sly smile we saw after so many of his miraculous shots.