My history hero: Seve Ballesteros (1957–2011)

"He spent hours and hours alone on the beach with a club and a ball – hitting it, and fetching it, hitting it and fetching it – until he was an absolute master of his craft": Joe Root tells York Membery why Seve Ballesteros is his history hero...

Seve Ballesteros. (Photo by Brian Morgan/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Seve Ballesteros was one of the leading golfers of the late 20th century, and arguably the greatest ever continental European player. The Spanish sportsman won over 90 international tournaments, including the Open Championship three times (1979, 84 and 88) and the Masters twice (1980, 83). He also helped lead the European Ryder Cup team to five victories – although he struggled with form in the late 1990s due to back-related injuries. In 2008 he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, from which he later died.

When did you first hear about Seve Ballesteros?

I first heard about Seve from watching television clips of the Ryder Cup when I was growing up – although he enjoyed most of his greatest sporting successes before I was born or really old enough to appreciate his brilliance as a golfer. However, just seeing his evident enjoyment of the sport, and his boundless passion for the game, made me want to know more about him – and the more

I learnt, the more I found to admire.

What kind of person was Ballesteros?

Golf was his life – and, just as importantly in a way, it was in his blood. He started playing after being given a 3-iron by his brother when he was eight, and learnt his craft by practising day in, day out, on the beach. He was absolutely dedicated to his golf, turned professional when he was just 16 and instantly made his mark on the golfing world. But he was also a man of great courage as he showed in the quiet dignity with which he battled the brain cancer that eventually killed him.

What made Ballesteros a hero?

Firstly, the fact that he was such an outstanding player, and remained at the top of his game for so long. Secondly, the way he spent hours and hours alone on the beach with a club and a ball – hitting it, and fetching it, hitting it and fetching it – until he was an absolute master of his craft. Thirdly, his whole approach to golf, and his sheer enjoyment of the game – he always gave the watching crowds a lift, and that’s what you want in a sportsman. Lastly, the way in which he chased his dream and made it come true. All of which, in their own way, are equally inspirational.

What was his finest hour?

It’s hard to single out one. For me, his victory in the 1979 Open Championship, making him the youngest 20th‑century winner of the tournament, must rank as one of his finest moments. Having said that, I think he once said that the putt he holed on the 18th green at St Andrews to win the 1984 Open Championship was “the happiest moment” of his sporting life – so maybe he regarded that as his finest hour. The personal courage with which he fought cancer was surely another ‘finest hour’.

Are you a history buff?

I have to admit that I wasn’t a massive fan of history at school! But the older I get, the greater my interest in the past.

Are there any other figures from further back in time that you particularly admire?

Being a proud Yorkshireman, it’s perhaps no great surprise that I’m a fan of the Test cricketer Len Hutton (1916–90), who played before and after the Second World War as an opening batsman for Yorkshire and England. Another figure I admire is the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman (1908–2001), perhaps the greatest cricketer of all time.

Can you see any parallels between Ballesteros’s life and your own?

Well, I enjoy golf, but I’m never going to be in his league! Seriously though, Seve always played with a bit of a smile on his face – and I try to do the same thing. Like him, I’m always desperate to succeed too.

If you could meet Ballesteros, what would you ask him?

I’d like to ask him how he managed to stay at the top of his game for so long. Just how did he keep that fire in his belly, the fire that set him apart from so many of his contemporaries?

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Joe Root was one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year in 2014. His book Bringing Home the Ashes: Winning with England was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2015.