Anyone concerned that their tear ducts might not be in working order should take a look at the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year show, when Severiano Ballesteros was given a lifetime achievement award. The gong is presented to Seve at his home in Spain by his friend (and the other half of surely the greatest ever Ryder Cup pairing) José Maria Olazábal. After a while, Olazabal cracks up in tears and can’t go on. So Seve — poor, dying, cancer-ridden Seve — consoles him, squeezing his knee and with a smile, saying, ‘You’re doing OK. You’re still swinging the club well too…’ What a man.
If you’re old enough to remember when Slazenger was cool, chances are you have a favourite Seve memory. For some it’s the punch of the air so famous he had it tattooed on his arm. For others it’s his body stretched like a bow as he whacked the ball into the wide blue yonder. A one-off? For sure. But looking around at the world of sport, glimmers survive. I reckon about two parts Sir Alex Ferguson to one part Rafa Nadal and a dash of Neil Warnock produces the cocktail that comes closest to the Matador of Padrena.
Fergie has that will to power. Self-confidence? Seve was off the scale every time he chose a club. Like asking for a three-wood when he was in a bunker at the 1983 Ryder Cup, then hitting the green 245 yards away (Jack Nicklaus says it was the best shot he’d ever seen). It was the same spirit that made Fergie declare, all those years ago, that he’d knock Liverpool off their perch. Not a bad target for a man who joined Manchester United when Liverpool had nine more titles.
Of course both could be nightmares on their day. I liked the anecdote about Seve bawling out a caddie because he had given him an apple that was ‘too soft’. Heaven knows what would happen if you gave Fergie some Orbit Sugarfree rather than his two-a-match Wrigley’s Doublemint.
But even when he’s winning, which is most of the time, Fergie is not a figure of adoration. Nobody looks at Sir Alex and wants to be him, do they? But you did want to be Seve, just as now you dream of being Rafa Nadal.
Then there’s inspiration. Unlike Nadal and Fergie, Seve could be at his greatest when he wasn’t on top. He didn’t need to be winning his points to lead the Ryder Cup charge. So, as a leader who can lift a team? Warnock’s the modern master. A few months after the Crystal Palace fiasco, he’s taken QPR up from the Championship. Warnock knows he’s got deficiencies as a manager, but few have that ability to inspire belief. When he went to Plymouth, the anthem was Sousa’s Semper Fidelis. He said no one would win the title with that anthem, and chose Tina Turner’s Simply The Best. He had them promoted first season.
It was that audacity of getting it wrong time after time, never playing it safe, that made Seve great. Great as an inspiration to the pros, and as an entertainer for the rest of us. Billy Foster, his old caddie, wrote in the Sunday Times that he’s expecting Seve to pop up out of his coffin at the funeral. ‘He was the master of recovery, you know.’
Something for the notebook, as they say on the gallops. If Dylan Hartley isn’t captaining England in the 2015 rugby world cup, I will eat my scrum cap. He was outstanding in Northampton’s Heineken defeat of Perpignan; but more important he has a lot in common with his coach. Like Martin Johnson, he cut his stripes playing rugby in New Zealand, and in his early days he earned a reputation as a bit of a headbanger. More important, scrumming down opposite Hartley looks about as good for your health as a night out with Andy Powell, and there’s not even a few drinks to take the edge off things.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.