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Seve Ballesteros, 1957-2011

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The sport of golf has lost an artist and a true gentlemen. It was with great sadness that I awoke to read the news of Severiano Ballesteros‘s passing in the early hours of this morning at the age of 54. The Spanish great had been suffering from failing health since being diagnosed with a brain tumour in October 2008.

The greatest sporting icons frequently set themselves apart by only ever needing to be referred to by their first name: everyone knows who Tiger is, and with apologies to Mr Johnson the athlete ‘Michael’ will forever be associated with the Chicago Bulls‘ Jordan. ‘Seve’ very much falls into this category.

Sporting events form a large part of the jigsaw of my childhood memories, and my clearest recollections start from when I was eight or nine, from mid-1978 to mid-1980: the electric finish to the 1979 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Manchester United, Allan Wells winning Olympic gold in the 100 metres, the last days of the thrilling Welsh rugby union team of the 70s. Seve’s triumph at the 1979 Open championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes ranks right up there.

I remember watching captivated as a youthful Ballesteros overcame a two-shot deficit to the American Hale Irwin going into the final day with a round of erratic but brilliant genius. With the title still in the balance, he famously hacked his tee shot at the 16th into a car park. Not only did he recover, he made birdie and eventually triumphed by three shots. At 22, he was the youngest winner of the tournament in the 20th century and also the first man from continental Europe to win one of golf’s four Majors in 72 years.

That 16th hole at Lytham summed up everything that was magical about Seve. So often he drove the ball as waywardly as any occasional weekend golfer, but his ability to recover seemingly hopeless situations from sand or rough was unprecedented. Whether it was an unerring middle-iron hack out of long grass or a delicate, soft-handed chip from a green-side bunker, Ballesteros thrived on his ability to conjure up the seemingly impossible with his short game.

And more than his ability was the child-like enthusiasm he brought to the game. In an era of media-trained professionals and corporate correctness, there is something inherently uplifting about watching old clips of him rolling a sublime chip to within six inches of the flag and seeing his smile and that familiar, unrestrained fist-pumping jig of delight. Yes, there were times when his Latin temperament brought a terrible case of the sulks down upon him when things were going badly, but Ballesteros always connected with the fans in such a way that it only endeared them to him even more. Tiger Woods is seen as petulant, Seve was just ‘one of us’.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between these two great golfers: Woods is admired, but Seve was loved.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact Ballesteros’s win at The Open had on the wider game. His success paved the way for the wave of top continental European golfers who have since followed. And it is not stretching the truth too much to say that in some small way his warm personality and accessible, down-to-earth charm helped open up the game to a wider audience who had previously viewed the sport as aloof and elitist. And he did it all with a certain grace, from the artistic invention of his stroke-play to the simple and understated elegance of his attire. (No garish plus-fours for Seve.)

In total , Ballesteros won five Majors during his career. In 1980 he became the first European to win the Masters, and also its youngest ever champion at 23 (a record since broken by Woods). A second triumph followed in 1983, followed by two further Open championships in 1984 and 1988. As a player and captain, he helped the European Ryder Cup team to five wins. After the current world golf rankings system was introduced in 1986, he was world number one for 61 weeks. (Only three men – Woods, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo – have held the position for longer.) Both statistically and emotionally, there is no denying his place among the legends of the sport.

Despite recurring back problems and increasingly poor form, Ballesteros did not retire from the game until 2007, a year before his tumour was diagnosed, finishing with a total of 91 professional wins. He also helped introduce the Seve Trophy in 2000, a bi-annual team competition similar to the Ryder Cup in which a Great Britain and Ireland team take on their counterparts from continental Europe.

Seve Ballesteros is survived by his ex-wife of 16 years, Carmen Botín, and their three children Baldomero, Miguel, and Carmen.

Those whom the gods love die young, indeed. May you rest in peace, Seve. Whichever bunker your ball lands in on Heaven’s golf course, may it be a favourable lie from which you can magically escape up-and-down in two.

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The week in numbers: w/e 8/8/10

26 – Days between the World Cup final and the start of the Football League season, which kicked off with the Championship opener between Norwich and Watford on Friday evening. (Watford won 3-2.)

17 – All but five of the Championship’s 22 clubs have prior experience of playing in the Premier League.

3Scott Rendell has scored in his first league appearance in the last three seasons, for Peterborough, Torquay & now Wycombe.

Usan Bolt (image courtesy of José Goulão)

2Usain Bolt lost a 100 metres race for only the second time in his professional career after losing to Tyson Gay at Friday’s Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. Bolt’s only previous defeat came in the same stadium (to Asafa Powell) two years ago.

72Pakistan‘s first innings total in the second Test, their lowest score ever against England. It came less than a week after they set their previous low of 80 in the first Test.

54 – Pakistan’s number three batsman, Azhar Ali, spent a total of 54 minutes at the crease before being dismissed for a duck. It was the fifth-longest (in terms of time) run-less innings in Test history.

Graeme Swann

8Graeme Swann‘s second innings return of 6/60 (as at last night’s close) represents his best bowling performance in Tests, and is the eighth time he has taken at least five wickets in an innings in just his 22nd Test match.

180,000 – Weekly salary reportedly demanded by Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli in transfer negotiations with Manchester City. Balotelli is 19 and has played just 59 games for Inter.

600 – The New York YankeesAlex Rodriguez hit his 600th career home run on Wednesday in a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the seventh player to do so in Major League Baseball history and, at 35 years and 8 days, the youngest to reach that landmark. It came on the three-year anniversary of his 500th home run.

15,133 – Total fines (in pounds) levied against the Dutch and Spanish Football Associations by FIFA for their players’ poor discipline in last month’s World Cup final. Spain received five yellow cards; Holland had eight players booked and defender John Heitinga was sent off.

10Fabio Capello‘s first post-World Cup England squad contained just 10 of the 23-man squad who played in South Africa.

18 Tiger Woods ended with a career-worst total of 18-over par at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio. He finished 30 shots behind winner Hunter Mahan.

And finally, two statistics to illustrate how you should always take pre-season results with a pinch of salt:

11 – Goals in Arsenal‘s final pre-season game at Legia Warsaw. The Gunners won 6-5, having been 3-0 down.

80% – Reigning Premier League champions Chelsea have lost four of their five preseason games, including yesterday’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield.

(Some statistics courtesy of @OptaJoe.)

The week in numbers: w/e 18/7/10

England captain Andrew Strauss (image courtesy of HNM_1977)

250 – Second-wicket partnership by Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott in the third and final one-day international against Bangladesh. It established a new England record as the highest stand for any wicket in ODIs. Strauss scored 154, Trott 110.

2 – Days after the World Cup final before the UEFA Champions League programme started. 17 qualifying matches were played on Tuesday and Wednesday.

13Australia‘s victory in the first Test at Lord’s was their 13th successive win over Pakistan.

63Rory McIlroy‘s first round of 63 at The Open at St Andrews equalled the lowest-ever round at any of golf’s four majors.

7Louis Oosthuizen‘s winning margin as he claimed his first major title at The Open with a 16-under par total of 272.

48,200 – A ball used in the World Cup final was bought by Spanish fans in an online charity auction for $74,000 (equivalent to£48,200).

Cadel Evans

8:07 – Time lost by yellow jersey Cadel Evans on Tuesday’s stage nine at the Tour de France, as he slipped from first to 18th in one day. Evans rode the entire stage with a cracked bone in his elbow, sustained in a crash the previous Sunday.

3 – The yellow jersey changed hands on three consecutive stages in the mountains of the Jura and the Alps. Fabian Cancellara lost it to Sylvain Chavanel on stage seven, who in turn relinquished it to Cadel Evans and then Andy Schleck on stages eight and nine.

Defining moments 5: Nicklaus defines true sportsmanship

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

The English language is a peculiar beast. While the words ‘sports’ and ‘games’ are broadly similar, ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘gamesmanship’ have distinctly different meanings. The former is all about playing fair and giving consideration to your opponent in the heat of competition; the latter suggests a more conniving attitude that seeks to maximise any available advantage short of outright cheating. For instance, a snooker player who deliberately slows the game down in an attempt to disrupt the rhythm of a dominant opponent is employing gamesmanship; another who points out to the referee that he has touched a ball with his waistcoat, thereby committing a foul, is displaying exemplary sportsmanship.

Sporting gestures are frequently small things, such as a footballer kicking the ball out of play so an injured player can receive immediate treatment, with possession being returned at the restart.

Sometimes such acts occur on a more humanitarian scale: for instance, Niki Lauda’s terrifying crash at the Nurburgring, where other drivers stopped to pull him from the wreckage of his burning car, acts of selflessness over self-interest which saved the Austrian’s life.

And occasionally, displays of sportsmanship can be so magnanimous as to sacrifice victory in favour of doing the right thing – a simple matter of gentlemanly honour.

Royal Birkdale Golf Club, September 1969

The 1969 Ryder Cup started amid a less than gentlemanly atmosphere.

The Americans had enjoyed a long period of dominance over Britain (it would not become ‘Europe’ until 1979) in the competition, having won 12 of the previous 13 meetings, including the last five. The 1967 match in Houston had been as one-sided as the final scoreline of 23½-8½ would suggest. However, with a strong, young team and the added benefit of home advantage this time around, captain Eric Brown was confident Britain stood a genuine chance of securing only its second Ryder Cup win since World War II. So keen was he to grab every possible advantage that he even ordered his players not to help the Americans look for their balls if they were lost in the rough, setting the tone for a series of niggly, ill-tempered spats between the teams.

In spite of this, the match itself developed into a classic, with 17 of the 32 ties going to the final hole and the British side matching their American counterparts shot for shot and point for point. With just one game left to complete, the match score was deadlocked at 15½-15½.

In keeping with the rest of the match, the final rubber between Britain’s Tony Jacklin and the USA’s Jack Nicklaus – arguably the two best players in the world at that time – is closely contested. The tie see-saws first one way then the other as they wrestle for the initiative, neither leading by more than one hole at any point.

With three holes remaining, the pair are level. Nicklaus wins the 16th to edge ahead, but Jacklin then sinks a monster 50-foot putt to send them down the last hole of the last match of the Ryder Cup all square.

As they walk down the fairway together after their tee shots, the American asks his opponent how he is feeling.

“I’m petrified,” Jacklin admits, to which Nicklaus responds, “If it’s any consolation, I feel exactly the same way you do.”

By the time they stride onto the 18th green it resembles a tiny, tightly-packed gladiators’ arena, with the entire crowd gathered several rows deep around its periphery, straining to glimpse the climax of three days of competition. Jacklin’s ball is further from the hole, meaning he must putt first. His attempt from around 25 feet away is perfect in line but not distance, agonisingly stopping just over two feet short. A valiant try, but now he must watch, powerless, as his opponent lines up a putt to win both the tie and the Ryder Cup outright.

Great player though he is, even Nicklaus is struggling to control the adrenaline surging through his veins. He strikes the ball aggressively and watches aghast as it sails past the hole and rolls on a further four feet. Now the shoe is on the other foot; he has to go first, and if he misses and Jacklin succeeds then it will be Britain and not the USA who will claim the Cup.

Big pressure putts are familiar territory for a top golfer; the added expectation of representing a team and a nation in such a historical and prestigious event is not. The situation might destroy a lesser man, but not Nicklaus, who nonchalantly rolls the ball into the centre of the hole and breathes a massive sigh of relief. Now he can do no worse than draw the tie and the overall match, and if nerves get the better of Jacklin, he would claim outright victory for himself and the USA.

One can only imagine what thoughts are racing through Jacklin’s mind as he watches Nicklaus hole out. The putt he faces is relatively straightforward under normal circumstances, but this situation is anything but. This is pressure at its most intense, and with everyone’s eyes trained on him he has nowhere to hide.

However, of all the scenarios playing out in his brain, the one he has not considered is the one that actually occurs. Nicklaus picks his own ball out of the hole, pauses, and then reaches over to pick up his opponent’s marker, conceding the putt. He goes over to the Englishman, offers his hand, and explains, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

The two golfers leave the course together with an arm around each other’s shoulder to heartfelt and deserved applause from the crowd. It is a fitting end to an honourable match between two great rivals.

In the final analysis, Nicklaus and Jacklin halved their match, and the overall score finished 16-16, the first tie in Ryder Cup history. Under the competition’s rules, this meant the USA, as the current holders, retained the trophy. Nicklaus knew this; he knew it made no material difference to the fate of the Cup whether he himself won or drew. The concession cost nothing in competitive terms, but was of immeasurable sporting value.

Nicklaus explained later, “I believed good sportsmanship should be as much a part of the Ryder Cup as great competition.” Jacklin has always been quick to agree, calling it “the greatest single sporting gesture in golf”.

Not everyone involved saw it that way. American captain Sam Snead was apoplectic: “It was ridiculous to give him that putt. We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.” Fortunately, others were able to see the bigger picture. Leo Fraser, President of the US PGA, graciously agreed the two countries should each retain the trophy for a year, contrary to tradition.

The events of 1969 were echoed eighteen years later when the Americans were defeated on home soil for the first time ever after Larry Nelson graciously conceded a two-foot putt to Bernhard Langer. The captains that year? Nicklaus and Jacklin.

Jack Nicklaus demonstrated that sportsmanship is as much about the way you win as the way you play the game, and that it can even be infectious. Conceding Tony Jacklin’s putt was an instinctive act, a small yet grand gesture from one of golf’s true gentlemen, and one which has deservedly earned a place in sporting legend.

Up a mountain without a pedal

It wasn’t officially Grand Slam Sunday as such, but if you are a lover of high drama in sport, then yesterday was as good as they come, with thrilling finishes in three major events.

At a soggy Nurburgring, we saw a Formula 1 first, with Lewis Hamilton finishing off the podium – and, indeed, out of the points – for the first time in his career. In a race of thrills, aquaplaning spills and driver errors – rain always guarantees entertainment in F1 – we also witnessed that rarest of rare things: a genuine on-the-road pass for the lead, with Fernando Alonso forcing his way past Felipe Massa five laps from the chequered flag with an … ahem … robust, wheel-banging move, one strongly reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. (Showing my age there!) More importantly, Alonso has closed Hamilton’s championship lead to just two points, and with Ferrari showing superior pace (in dry conditions, at least) over the past few weeks, it’s game on again.

Later, in the final round of The Open at Carnoustie, we witnessed the kind of sedate, crank-up-the-tension drama which only golf and a finely-balanced Ashes Test match can truly provide. Sergio Garcia squandered a four-shot lead, falling two behind Argentina’s Andres Romero, who then promptly dropped three shots on the final two holes to fall out of contention. Padraig Harrington teed off on the 18th one up on Garcia, only to find water twice, leaving the Spaniard needing “only” a par – on one of the hardest holes in golf – to win. A wayward second shot landed Garcia in a green-side bunker, and his subsequent delicate chip left him an eight-footer to win the championship, which he missed by a inch.

And so we moved into a four-hole playoff. Harrington immediately gained a two-shot lead, which he maintained into the final hole, where a combination of his own caution and a stunning second shot from the rough by Garcia left the result still hanging delicately in the balance. Ultimately, Garcia narrowly missed his monster birdie putt, and Harrington held his nerve to sink an awkward four-footer for his first Major title.

But for sheer spectacle and shattering physical effort, the best finish of the day took place in the Pyrenees.

Tour de France, stage 14: Mazamet to Plateau de Beille

The first full day in the Pyrenees could only really be described as a day from hell. With tired legs sapped even further by the previous day’s lactic acid-inducing individual time trial, Sunday’s 197km stage was always going to be a peloton-shattering ordeal. Featuring two hors catégorie (HC) mountains – HC essentially meaning (I’m paraphrasing here) “absolute bastard that defies categorisation” – with the second climb culminating in the finish at the Pyrenean resort of Plateau de Beille, the stage was always going to play a major role in terms of sorting out the contenders from the pretenders.

And so it proved to be.

As it turned out, we got our first little dramatic hors d’oeuvre on the first HC climb of the Port de Pailhères, as the early Tour favourite – and winner of the previous day’s time trial – Alexandre Vinokourov blew up completely. Vino, who had gritted his teeth through the pain of a first week crash which required around 60 stitches, had finally run out of gas, waving to the camera in acknowledgement that his already slim chances were finally ended. He would finish half an hour down on the leaders.

But it is in the final 45 minutes as the other main players ascend torturously towards Plateau de Beille that the big stories unfold, one after the other almost too quickly to comprehend. As the gradient kicks up from the lower slopes and the attacks start, those with too-heavy legs are quickly exposed – Mayo, Schleck, Valverde, Kloden – one by one they drop away, unable to summon the necessary bursts of acceleration to stay in touch. And then the young Spaniard Alberto Contador launches one final attack about 6km from the finish, and it is one which we may look back on as the decisive moment of this year’s Tour. Yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen follows, but Soler, Sastre and, most tellingly, second-placed Cadel Evans are unable to respond. It is only about 15 minutes’ racing time from the finish, but such is the nature of these big mountain-top finishes that once a rider has cracked, he can go backward as rapidly as if an elastic cord has been cut. And 15 minutes of effort by Contador and Rasmussen – despite some tactical jockeying for position at the finish, where Contador eventually claims the stage win – is enough to distance Evans by two full minutes.

In one critical, excruciatingly painful moment, Evans has not only lost second place overall (to Contador) but has gone from being one minute off the race lead (an eminently recoverable gap given his time-trialling ability) to being three minutes distant, an equation which now swings back in Rasmussen’s favour.

The race is, of course, still far from won. Rasmussen must safely negotiate two further days in the mountains, plus the second time trial. Not to mention the blackening cloud of a doping scandal (not again, sigh) caused by an alleged four missed drug tests which has been building over his head all weekend.

Nonetheless yesterday’s stage remains a shining example of what makes a mountain-top finish at the Tour such compelling viewing. Great athletes stretched right up to their (considerable) physical limits, stripped of the security blanket of their team-mate minders, and reduced to a simple head-to-head comparison of who is the strongest and most determined. It is simply astonishing to watch, and it puts our pampered Premiership footballers to shame when you consider that the vast majority of professional cyclists earn less in a year (some as little as £20,000) than the likes of Michael Ballack or Andriy Shevchenko do in a week.

Respect.

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