EDITOR'S NOTE - This article first appeared in bunkered towards the end of 2009. It has not been re-edited and appears as it did in print to give full context.
Before I tell you just how much of a pleasure it was to spend some time with Seve Ballesteros at his home in Spain, I feel it is important to express how much Seve means to me.
He was, and still is, my boyhood hero. A true legend.
I am no different to any other golfer in that I still get goosebumps whenever I watch footage of the great man punching the air after winning the Open at St Andrews in 1984.
I now consider myself very lucky to have spoken to Seve about that very moment and how it impacted on his life.
In January of this year, Seve posted a message on his website stating that he was improving every day following treatment to remove a brain tumour. He described his improvement as a “miracle”.
I was extremely fortunate to be given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the weekend with Seve and his family and friends at the family home in Padrena, Spain, during the week of the Open Championship in July.
It was an unforgettable experience where I heard, first hand, how exciting he is about hitting golf balls again and how he’s planning to return to the Open at St Andrews in 2010...
During this year’s Open, I have to admit, I had the time of my life. But I wasn’t at Turnberry, I wasn’t anywhere near it, in fact. I was in Padrena, Spain, spending the weekend with Seve Ballesteros.
The meeting was arranged through a friend of the Ballesteros family, a woman called Anna, sister to Seve’s ex-wife Carmen. I happen to coach Anna and have done for some time. Following a lesson, I asked her if Seve would answer a few questions about some things I had been working on.
She replied: “Why don’t you just come and meet him?”
Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Spain, preparing to meet golf’s most charismatic player.
I was apprehensive at first because Seve, of course, was in the midst of recovering from surgery following the discovery of a brain tumour last year. The 52 year old even described his recovery as a “miracle”.
I honestly did not know what to expect of our meeting. I had only ever met the man once, and that was when I was an aspiring 19-year-old trying to qualify for the 1991 Open at Royal Birkdale at Hillside, which doesn’t have a practice ground.
The organisers told me to use the practice ground at Birkdale, so I got a buggy to take me to the range. Just as I was about to head off, Seve came up and asked if he could hop on as he was also heading to the range. So, there I am as a 19-year-old kid, sitting next to my hero, and I just couldn’t think of anything to say. I was totally numb.
I bit the bullet and practised next to him on the range. He was there for about 40 minutes and I was there for about three hours trying to copy him.
Now, we were going to meet again. This time I had better think of something to say.
I arrived at Padrena on the Friday morning, just as the world was watching Tom Watson do his thing in Ayrshire. The original plan was that Seve and I would play nine holes together, but the weather wasn’t good enough so Anna arranged for me just to go to Seve’s house.
The Ballesteros family home is typically Spanish, with huge wooden gates that Open up as you drive into the courtyard. It’s got huge Valderrama-like steps at the front, all very grand and very beautiful. As we walk up the steps, I notice that the front door, which is absolutely enormous, is slightly ajar. Anna pushes the door open and we enter the lobby, where I’m greeted with several paintings of Seve on the wall.
At this point, Anna says: “Seve, Seve, Seve, are you there?” And then I hear his voice. “Yes, I’m here, I’m in the kitchen, come on in!”
By this time, my heart is in my mouth. I walk into the kitchen and he says: “Kevin… I’m glad to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.”
He shakes my hand, hugs me, and stares right at me. I feel his eyes going into my eyes. “Good,” he says. “Now let’s go.”
The Open is on the TV and I can tell he’s been planted on the couch for some time. “You want a coffee? Seve will make you a coffee – wait ‘til you taste my coffee.”
It was fairly strong compared to what I’m used to but I can assure you, Seve makes good coffee.
We talked about so many subjects, including the Open. He was eager to talk. He got very excited when looking back at some of his great shots. He was amazing in that he could talk about any shot from any time, any place, describe the golf course, the situation, the strike, the execution – truly amazing.
He took me into a room in his house that’s jammed full of old equipment. “Hey, you know that 3-wood"?” he asks me. He is, of course, talking about the 3-wood he hit out of the bunker during the 1983 Ryder Cup at Palm Beach, which Jack Nicklaus said was one of the greatest shots of all time. Well, that 3-wood now looks like a toffee apple on the end of a thin stick. The head is beat up, as is the grip. Unbelievable.
He has got hundreds of putters lying about pretty much everywhere. He could walk through the room, pick up a club and tell you where he’s played it, instantly. Amazing stuff. He even gave me an old Wilson wedge which he had used in competition. This thing looked like an antique. Then he says, “I need to show you something.”
After eventually finding some batteries that worked, Seve plays me a tape on an old dictaphone. Within seconds, I recognise the voice I’m hearing is that of Muhammad Ali.
Seve explains: “When I first won the Masters, my agent said to me: ‘You can speak to anyone you want. Do you want to meet the Pope?’ I knew that the Pope was a good guy, but I didn’t have any desire to meet him. I wanted to meet Muhammad Ali.”
Seve told me the Ali meeting was supposed to take place in a restaurant but it was cancelled for whatever reason. “But he rang me,” he says, his eyes now full of excitement.
I am now listening to this message from Ali and I can see Seve getting quite emotional, his eyes glued to the tape. It was fascinating watching him listen to such an old recording. You can hear Ali asking the young Spaniard his name and Seve replying, “My name is Seve Ballesteros.”
He said he followed the same philosophical approach to golf that Ali put into his boxing. Ali said he always knew when he was going to knock his opponent to the canvas. Seve said he knew when he was going to win certain events “because I had already played it out in my mind beforehand”.
He talked about how he imagined his focus on the course and how he was a great believer in using confidence to you advantage in the heat of battle.
I asked him what was going through his head when he holed the winning putt at St Andrews, to which he replied: “Complete satisfaction. In life, the secret is to be happy in many ways – but that was complete satisfaction.”
I could tell Seve was now getting tired and would probably like a bit of peace and quiet. That said, he still has a great physique and looks in great condition. Considering what he’s been through, he’s in fantastic shape. He kept grabbing my arms and saying, “You’re a strong boy, big, strong boy. He kept saying that.”
Just before I was about to leave, he was kind enough to sign a few pictures for me. I thought, ‘Well, you’re never going to get another chance at this’. He signed one for my son, Ben, and one for my dad. He signed a picture and wrote, “To Kevin, the natural coach.”
I was standing there with a tube full of pictures – I’m not kidding, I’ve got about 20 pictures in this tube. He looks at me and says: “You want me to sign all of those?”
“No, no, no, it’s fine,” I said, not wanting to trouble him any further.
He said: “And why not?”
I didn’t need an excuse after that. He signed every single picture, joking that his arm was beginning to hurt.
He walked me out of the office and I told him what our meeting had meant to me. “Seve, this has fulfilled a dream. You have inspired me, given me an insight to a world that I would never have thought possible and I thank you for that.”
He looked at me and gave me the biggest hug, kissed me on the cheek and started to cry. At this point, I’m away with the fairies. I went back to my hotel and relaxed, then started preparing for my lesson with Anna the next morning.
I had agreed to meet her on the range to work on some things, then playing nine holes at Padrena. When we finished, Anna went for a drink in the clubhouse. I look over at the range and there is Seve in the corner, on his own. Anna tells me to go and talk to him.
I sheepishly walk over, not wanting to interrupt, but he sees me and asks where I’ve been. “Kevin, come and talk to me,” he says.
We have a bit of fun on the range. There’s a few local people looking on but they don’t really talk to him, they just watch from a distance. The local teaching professionals talk to him but the locals don’t really get involved much. Nobody bothers him.
He just walks up and down the range with his bucket of balls like anyone else. Every morning and every night, Seve is on the range. He would leave in the morning after practice then go to the gym, where he does squats and bench presses for about an hour and a half. He usually goes for a sleep in the afternoon. After that, he’s back on the range in the early evening.
As you drive along the road, you can see him in the corner. And by the way, this driving range is not Loch Lomond, it’s not glamorous, it’s just a typical driving range. It’s got grass chewed up by people hitting balls, there’s a ball dispenser that needs a slight kick and so on.
Seve’s brother, Baldomero, was there that afternoon. I was cautious of Baldomero because he has a reputation of being very protective of Seve. But Seve went out of his way to introduce me to him, which was a real relief. The Seve said to me, “What do you think of my swing?”
I told him he was getting too deep, and that’s why he was hitting a flat hook. He then changes his swing and starts banging balls up the range. I told him: “You see, Seve? Natural coach.”
He stops what he’s doing and says: “No, Kevin, I knew this, I already knew this.”
I noticed that he’s still got a lot of shots. He can still play and you can see him getting excited about hitting shots. He has shown that he’s no different to any of us. He always wanted to hit one more shot, despite protestations from his brother, who wanted him to leave so he could go a do his TV interview with the BBC.
“I want to play at St Andrews next year,” he told me. “I am going to play in that Open. It’s what I want.”
Before I left, I said my goodbyes to Anna and her family and friends and then, once again, thanked Seve for allowing me into his world for a short time.
He gave me a hug, shook my hand and said: “We will meet again.”
I’ll hold him to that.