Thursday

The Springtime of a Dashing Young Spaniard

Golf meant nothing to me growing up, which may seem strange when you consider that my first twenty years were spent in Greenwich, CT, where cloistered country clubs... and the golf courses within them... are almost as ubiquitous as the fine restaurants and expensive emporiums that line the town's main shopping street.

However, Greenwich is a coastal community too, and I spent my summers sailing on Long Island Sound.  Sunfish regattas and Laser racing... the splashing, speed and billowing spinnakers... always seemed more fun and exciting to me than the deliberate-looking game that took place beyond the trim hedges of those back country bastions. ---->

I never thought of golf as a spectator sport either.  In fact the only memory I have of televised golf as I was growing up, is the yearly right-of-spring that was the Masters,  and I don't think there's anyone who grew up in the US who doesn't have memories of that. The intense, velvety green, the bright pink, and the evocative Masters song were all unmistakable and memorable.

Even those who never followed the sport inevitably caught bits and pieces of the Masters spectacle each year... on some TV screen, somewhere... and I'm quite sure the memories resonate with many to this day,  as they do with me.

But my most vivid golf memory of that era... the seventies and eighties... is of glancing up at the family television one random Friday in early spring and seeing the most implausibly handsome man I'd ever seen.  It was Seve Ballesteros of course.  He'd just turned 23 and was on his way to winning the 1980 Masters.  I remember thinking that he didn't look like a golfer... though I don't suppose I really had much of an idea what a golfer looked like.  I do know I made a point to watch the tournament for the remainder of the weekend, which must have seemed extremely odd to my family.  I also absconded with the next issue of Sports Illustrated, the one that featured "The Youngest Master" on its cover.

I developed a major crush that long ago springtime, on the man sports writers everywhere were describing as dashing.  He was sexy and exciting in way that seemed out-of-context on the trim fairways of staid country clubs.  Back then they didn't use the word hot, but in retrospect, Seve was the epitome of hot

His appeal of however, went way beyond his physique.  Despite my disinterest in golf at the time, I noticed the way he played; the unbridled, scrambling way.  When I read, not long ago, that he had defended that wild Friday round in 1980 by saying, "...it doesn't matter where you put the drive if you make the putt" and then adding, "it's very boring to go fairway, fairway, fairway," my continued infatuation made more sense.

Seve seemed very foreign too.  In the much more insular world of the early eighties, he was exciting and magical in a way that suddenly made golf compelling, and made me a nascent fan of a sport I'd never had the least bit of interest in before.

Over the year's that followed I watched the ups and downs of Señor Ballesteros: a second Masters, three Claret Jugs and his prolific Ryder Cup partnership with fellow Spainard Jose Maria Olazabal were all brilliant, though they were sometimes overshadowed by the injuries and altercations.

The Masters is when the memories of Ballestero's brilliance are most vivid and those memories are bound to be amplified in the wake of his recent death.

At the 2011 Champion's Dinner earlier this week, Phil Mickelson chose to honor Seve by selecting a menu based on the cuisine of Spain, and my Spanish golf writer friends have written some moving tributes to their countryman who is without a doubt one of the 20th century's greatest golfers, and whose talent and charisma is what brought so many fans, from so many places, to the game.

I'm heading to Augusta tomorrow, for the first time, and it's definitely a trip inspired by Seve.

Photos: Seve Ballesteros 1980 via Bleacher Report, The Youngest Master John Iacono/SI, Second shot on hole 10, Hugo Costa, Canal+Golf