Golfer Seve Ballesteros' death was announced early Saturday, May 7, 2011. Although I only was able to watch Ballesteros on TV over the years and see him perform with excellence and grace under pressure in Ryder Cup matches, as well as major tournaments, I always admired him.
In fact, when we were trying to decide on a title for our feature film From the Rough, I read an interview with Ballesteros in the New York Times last July 11. In that article, when asked what he would like to have been different when he was a professional golfer, he gave an answer that was only half-kidding. He said that he would have preferred narrower and shorter fairways because, as he put it, everyone would have to play from the rough as often as he did.
Although the comment was humorous, the real underlying message was that he was more comfortable than other golfers playing from the rough, and, for that matter, from any difficult location or lie. A contemporary of his, Ben Crenshaw, said that Ballesteros had the ability to design and execute on shots that most golfers could not imagine. In an article in the Sunday, May 8, 2011, New York Times by Larry Dorman, Jack Nicklaus was quoted saying:
"He was able to create shots, invent shots, and play shots from anywhere. When he won at Royal Latham in 1979, he played the 16th hole from a parking lot. I have watched him play 1-irons out of greenside bunkers, when just fooling around. He could get up and down out of a garbage can."
Another pro Butch Harmon said: "The more trouble he got into, the more comfortable he felt in the situation."
Being able to hit from the rough or other difficult lies and locations not only is important for getting out of trouble. It also enables a golfer to attempt to reach the green through shorter paths, rather than following the path prescribed by the fairways. This is particularly the case with holes laid out like doglegs.
In the stories about his death, Tom Lehman, an American golfer, remembered a competitive Ryder Cup match in which Ballesteros was spraying the golf ball all over the place on his drives -- into wooded areas, roughs, bunkers, and the far edges of fairways -- but he somehow managed to stay in the match and battle Lehman, who was described as a highly efficient golfer. Ballesteros lost, but he inspired his teammates to a come-from-behind victory.
Why does Ballesteros inspire us? Most of us who aspire to a better life are not efficient like Tom Lehman, but have erratic paths to success. We only succeed by experimenting, making mistakes, and recovering from them. Biographies sometimes get it right in portraying the lives of individuals whose paths to the top are filled with setbacks, such as David Truman's biography of Harry Truman, Truman, or Doris Kearns Goodwin's profile of Abraham Lincoln's presidency Team of Rivals. Ballesteros' father was a peasant farmer; he did not come from a wealthy family. His exposure to golf was as a caddy. In fact, as we created our fictionalized golfers, we realized that Ballesteros had bits and pieces of the qualities that caused us to position them as having come "from the rough."
Their biographies, like Seve Ballesteros' life and his path from the tee to the green through roughs, trees, and bunkers, are more realistic role models for us to than those who achieve early success like Bill Gates, or those with unbroken careers of achievement like many of the athletes who play professional sports today.
Golf is a metaphor for life, because it is a highly unforgiving sport in the scoring system used in most golf tournaments. In baseball, a batter who swings and misses gets charged with one strike, and can step up to the plate and have another chance for glory. In golf, one very bad shot puts the golfer in jeopardy for the next shot and can create a very bad score on a hole that follows the golfer through the whole tournament. The ability to recover from a bad shot is essential.
Seve Ballesteros built a career on his remarkable ability to recover from hitting drives not dissimilar to what many of us would hit on a course, but then demonstrating his brilliance by what he did after that. For that, he has inspired us, and we should remember not only what he accomplished, but how.