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Javier Ballesteros: I don’t feel any pressure. I learnt from the best but he was different from the rest

There was not, alas, to be any miraculous last conjuring trick. Seve finished far adrift in the field at seven over, missing the cut by many a mile, but with Javier at his side he offered throughout two convulsive days a demonstration of his career in miniature, coupling acts of devilish escapology with plenty of the shockingly errant driving that plagued his later career. “He was not practising as before,” Javier admits. “His back was not very good. I always think about this, about how it must be so frustrating to be at the top and then to go down so quickly. And he didn’t go down by just a little bit. I guess you have to accept that these things happen. Look at Tiger Woods now. He has been out for six months and he is playing so badly. That shows how good Tiger was, how difficult golf is.”

The lessons of history seem not to dissuade the heir to the Ballesteros dynasty, however. Already Javier has resolved, apparently irrevocably, that golf is his calling. He boasts a formidable academic pedigree, having been enrolled for the past three years on a law degree at Complutense University in Madrid, a place consistently ranked as the finest seat of learning in Spain. But late last year he decided, with surprising suddenness, to swap the casebooks for the clubs in pursuit of a dream that had preoccupied him from the cradle. “When I was studying, I was also playing,” he explains. “I was not what you would call a full-time student. The only difference is that now I am playing a lot more. It is a change for the good, because this is what I love.”

One wonders if his late father would have been won over by his logic. Ballesteros Snr was always adamant that his eldest boy should have a contingency if the golfing route proved fruitless, a stable livelihood on which to depend in the context of spiralling Spanish unemployment figures. “Family is the most important thing in life,” Seve counselled, when I met him at his house in 2010, just as his ordeal with brain cancer was nearing its end. “Family, friends, and a good job – especially in these times.”

Javier looks melancholy as he recalls such paternal wisdom. “Yes, he always wanted me to study, because he never had the opportunity to,” he says, quietly. “He had to do caddying at the club in Pedreña just to have any money at home. He turned pro very early. So, he really wanted me to finish.” But by the same token, Ballesteros had argued that his eldest boy should follow whatever path brought him the greatest contentment. That hope, at least, has been emphatically realised.


Learning from the best: Javier always wanted to be a professional golfer like his dad

“I’ve always wanted to be a professional golfer,” Javier says, in his first English newspaper interview. “I told my dad many times that I was going to give it a try. He was happy with that. When you are 10 years old, you consider so many options, but I was already pretty clear that I was going to turn pro. I didn’t know when, but I knew that I would.”

He took the plunge into the paid ranks last November, making his debut on the European Tour with an appearance in January at the Dubai Desert Classic. There, José María Olazábal, Ballesteros’ long-time Ryder Cup partner, was visibly moved by his presence. “I saw a lot of Seve out there,” he said, having accompanied Javier in a threeball alongside Miguel Ángel Jiménez. “He has a lot of the same mannerisms.”

For his part, Javier reacts diffidently to these comparisons, saying merely that it is “wonderful to go to different places and see that my father is much-loved there”. He could be forgiven, though, for feeling encumbered by the weight of his ancestral inheritance. His father, bequeathing five major titles and a lifetime of indelible moments, remains emblematic of an ideal in golf, symbolising the thrilling audacity with which the game could and should be played. His mother, Carmen, is the sister of Ana Botín, recently appointed as executive chairman of Santander and widely considered the most powerful woman in banking.

But Javier is nothing if not resolute in his commitment to be renowned for his own achievements. “I don’t feel any pressure, none at all,” he says. “What my dad did was incredible. In my opinion, I learned from the best. Sometimes, he has opened doors, with the Ballesteros name producing invitations to great tournaments. I notice, when I come here to Madeira or to other events like this, that I have more attention on me than other players, but I see it as normal. There were other fantastic players of his era – Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam – but I honestly believe he was different to all of them. I can’t be under pressure from somebody who was so different to everybody else. He won 91 times on tour. If I start as a pro and think about winning 91 times on tour, then maybe I had better not play golf.”

Javier’s upbringing formed a curious blend of rustic and metropolitan. Much of his childhood was centred around Pedreña, the modest fishing village by the Bay of Santander, which his father would never leave. But after his parents’ divorce in 2004, he and his siblings, Carmen and Miguel, spent increasing amounts of time with their mother in Madrid. There was an impression that their absence grieved Seve acutely. At one point in our encounter five years ago, he said, “All I want from Javier is to be a good person…” before trailing off in sobs. That bond is manifestly shared. Asked whether Ballesteros envisaged him more as a golfer as a lawyer, Javier replies: “I always told him that I was going to turn pro. I’m just sad that he wasn’t able to see it.”


Up for the cup: Javier with his mother and father after Seve won the PGA Championship in 1991

An abiding message from Seve was that raw talent, which he displayed in unprecedented abundance, would only take him so far. “He said to me, every chance he had, that I would have to work very hard,” Javier says. “That was what he did his whole career: work, work, work. He left school very early in Pedreña to bring money home, because there was never much around. He had to give such a lot to get to where he wanted.”

There is a famous story, vividly depicted in last summer’s film biopic of Seve’s life, of how Ballesteros sought to escape the constraints of his social standing. He was the son of a humble shepherd, who had to vault over the high stone walls of Royal Pedreña Golf Club if he ever wanted to play a round. It was in these circumstances that, aged 13, Seve agreed to a match against Eduardo de la Riva, the regional under-25 champion and scion of a wealthy family. The duel was starkly drawn: an impoverished farm boy versus a member of Cantabria’s patrician establishment. Naturally, Seve dealt De la Riva a beating he would never forget.

“They were supposed to play 18 holes of matchplay, and dad was so far ahead that it finished on the 10th,” Javier says. “He told me that story many times. But Pedreña, while there are still many who fish and farm, is a different society now. The golf club is still private, but some people who cannot be members receive permission to play there. It’s not like it was 50 years ago.”

It is the creativity of Seve’s play that finds most echoes in his son’s style. At one point in his round with Olazábal at the Emirates Club in Dubai, Javier hooked his tee-shot at the fifth so violently that the ball came to rest in a patch of dessicated scrubland. Undeterred, he hit his second shot from 170 yards to 10 feet from the pin, betraying the same level of dexterity that Seve had perfected in hours of practice on the pebbles of Pedreña beack with wooden-shafted clubs. Are such flashes of inspiration owed to his father’s example? “Maybe some,” he admits. “Sometimes, it’s difficult a see a shot or to execute it. Many times I see it, but I don’t have the ability like he had to put it on the green from everywhere. I practised at Pedreña with him many times and he tried to teach me how to do it. I’m not the right person to say whether I mastered it, but I definitely learned those kinds of shots from him.”

Javier’s transition from the amateur echelons has, thus far, been fraught. After sparking much anticipation with his victory at the Madrid Open in 2012, he fell short in December in his quest to claim a season-long place on Europe’s third-tier Alps Tour, before departing the Desert Classic with rounds of 83 and 81. But the steady stream of invitationals is beginning to bear fruit: he came 12th at a tournament in France this month, and refuses to abandon one aspiration in particular.

For the sprawling mansion that Seve built in Pedreña, and where Javier grew up, one moment – El Momento, as it was to be known in Spain – assumed maximum prominence. Holing the winning putt on the 18th at St Andrews in 1984 was a feat Ballesteros cherished so much that he had the picture of his victory pose tattooed on his left arm. The same silhouette was rendered in bronze on the front door. It was even stencilled on to every European Ryder Cup player’s bag at Medinah, for the first contest since his death at the age of 54.

“I’m sure my dad was very happy winning Ryder Cups – especially the one in ’97 at Valderrama, where he was captain,” Javier says. “But winning the Open at St Andrews? There is nothing more that a golfer can achieve.” Fittingly, then, as the Open makes its return to the Auld Grey Toon this summer, Ballesteros Jnr is unambiguous when pressed on his ultimate aim. “To win at St Andrews,” he declares. “Of course.” It is refreshing to find, four years after Europe tragically lost its inimitable, swashbuckling golfing matador, that the spirit of Seve could yet live on in both word and deed.


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