Seve in miserable state

JAMES LAWTON -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:21 PM ET

We know how quick can be the making of a superstar. Muhammad Ali did it in the Rome Olympics in a blaze of dazzling precocity. Pele was just 17 when he illuminated the World Cup of soccer in Stockholm in 1958. Tiger Woods invaded the psyche of golf in four days in Augusta.

But then the journey back down, in some of the harsher cases, can be very long indeed.

In the past few days, we have had fresh evidence of how long, how eviscerating it can be because, for those who remember the wonder of his youth, there has been no more forlorn news than that the personal life of Seve Ballesteros has joined his golf game in disarray.

If you care at all for golf, and are of sufficient age, you surely will remember the glory of Seve when he was winning so spectacularly at Augusta and the British Open.

No sight was more thrilling than that of the proud Spaniard -- as haughty as a great matador -- striding over the brow of a fairway. Playing golf was the least of it. He was expressing himself as truly as his compatriot Goya had when he mixed his colours.

On the best of his days, Ballesteros, like Woods, seemed to have invented a new game.

Even after the slide began, he ransacked his memory and did extraordinary things.

One remembers particularly well his marvelous Ryder Cup performance against Tom Lehman in the mid-1990s. Off the tee, Seve would have been hard pressed to hit the proverbial barn door. But in the end, he surrendered by a mere one up after recovery shots which defied some of the basic laws of geometry.

But as the months and the years ticked by, the pain on Ballesteros' face became ever more evident.

Stories of the great man's distress at the loss of his genius have sprouted along with the announcement that he and his wife Carmen, the daughter of a powerful Spanish banking family, are seeking a divorce.

Action by the European PGA in the wake of an incident between Ballesteros and a Spanish golf official -- when, it was said, they had at the very least an extremely frank exchange of views -- was just another indicator of the days of angst and disillusionment that have come to one of the great figures of European sport.

One of the more haunting images is of Ballesteros firing balls on a Spanish beach in the small hours of the morning.

He is, at the very least, haunted by the idea that something he did so beautifully, and came so naturally to him, is gone forever.

The dispiriting reality is that Seve's pain has gone on for so long. A decade ago, after he had faded from contention on the second day of a British Open, someone was bold enough to ask if he had considered taking a break from golf.

Maybe, it was suggested, a little time off from the game which had become so central to his life would be a good thing.

Ballesteros' eyes blazed.

"Do you think I need a break? Have you decided I'm no good?" the ill-advised counselor was asked.

In retrospect, it seems one might as well have recommended a break from breathing.

What happens when the wheels of a great talent fall off, when John Daly trembles over a putt or Ian Baker-Finch, a former British Open champion, duck hooks a tee shot on a windless day, or Seve forgets how to chip so brilliantly it almost makes the heart stop?

SO MUCH PAIN

So much pain, Ballesteros makes it graphically clear.

The news of divorce was perhaps not so surprising when you turned back your mind to one family crisis.

It was on the long second fairway at Augusta. Ballesteros was struggling desperately and this, it seemed, made an enjoyable spectacle for some of the gallery.

"Gee, who is this guy? He can't even play the game," exclaimed one of what passes for the cognoscenti in country-club America.

Whether Seve, locked into his despair, even heard the insult was not quite clear. But certainly Carmen Ballesteros did. She had the beginnings of tears in her eyes.

That was seven years ago. The toll that has been levied on lost genius since then is suddenly a matter for only the bleakest speculation.


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