I had two golf heroes growing up.
One was Greg Norman. The other was Seve Ballesteros.
Luckily, in the old days, when you went autograph hunting as a kid at the Open or Scottish Open, players were accessible because professional autograph hunters didn’t really exist, and security was fairly relaxed.
I forget the year but, during one Scottish Open at Gleneagles, I was determined to get the great man’s signature on my programme. I had earlier made a quite triumphant blunder by walking up to who I had thought was Tom Kite and asked him to sign his page in my book… only for him to flick a few pages backwards and sign his own picture instead. As I recall, Roger Chapman took it well and off I went.
But I really wanted Seve.
As soon as he left the practice ground, I knew that was my time to pounce. I threw out a pen towards him and, sure enough, to my delight, he signed my programme… but kept my pen.
Not knowing what to do, I kept walking alongside him as he rapidly signed autographs for about 15 other kids, all of us fighting to get as close as possible to the Spaniard. It was chaos, and he knew it. Kids kept throwing pens in his face, demanding results, to which he replied: “I only need one pen!”
That’s when he accidentally stepped on my foot, and it bloody well hurt. Steel spikes tend to do that to BHS trainers. I got my pen back, though.
Little did I know the next time I would meet Seve would be in a working capacity and, this time, he would introduce himself to me.
It was during the 2005 Open at St Andrews. I attended a Seve Trophy press announcement in a hospitality tent, blissfully unaware that Seve himself would be in attendance. I was a good 15 minutes early because I really didn’t have anything else to do. Back then, there was no website to update and no social media to do. Golf magazine guys spent the week having meetings and drinking. Sometimes we did both at the same time.
As I stood making small talk with a couple of the PR guys, in walked Seve. The room was pretty much empty. He came right up to my small group and, before I could say anything, he reached his hand, flashed a smile and said: “Hi, I’m Seve Ballesteros, nice to meet you.”
Suddenly, I felt like a little kid again. Isn’t it amazing how your heroes never, ever stop being your heroes?
He was a gentlemen, and we shared a very short conversation, absolutely none of which I can remember. It was a brilliant blur.
One of my great regrets is never having the opportunity to sit with him for a proper interview.
I had read all about his fall-outs with the tour in the previous few years, where he had particularly choice words for a number of senior figures at the European Tour. When he died, there were rumours about replacing the Harry Vardon silhouette the tour used in its logo with Seve’s iconic St Andrews fist pump from 1984. It sadly never materialised. It would have been a fine and fitting way to honour the man who really changed the face and standing of European golf.
I’ve often wondered if Seve’s brain tumour affected his thinking from time to time, a trait that is common with people who suffer severe neurological trauma. Despite the fights and fall-outs, he never lost the respect of his peers.
When he died, I remember thinking it was difficult to tell the difference between the people who knew him well and those who loved him from afar. Everybody loved him.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve cried more than a few times when I’ve thought about Seve. During a brilliant BBC documentary on his life, it was especially difficult to hear him talk about his illness.
“This is life. One day you feel fantastic, the next day you never know what is going to happen - and this is what happened to me,” he said, his voice breaking up. “And this is what I will call destiny. It’s one test that God is putting on me. And I’m winning. Just like I holed the 18 [sic] putt at St Andrews.”
A little over a year later he lost that fight, though bravery in the face of such adversity is to be admired and Seve had it more than anyone.
He will always be missed.
And he’ll always be my hero.