Every time I set foot on Spanish soil to play golf I can’t help but think about all the amazing golfers that have come from this part of Europe. So many great names, Pinero, Canizares, Olazabal, Garcia, but of course the greatest of all, the one that really paved the way was of course the one and only Severiano Ballesteros.
My first sighting, on the tv of course, was the 1985 Ryder cup at the Belfry. It enthralled me in such a fashion that it simply changed my world view. Seve was the on course leader of that team and his passion for the event was bewildering to a ten year old boy.
A few years later with my love of golf now firmly entrenched; my father took me to the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes. Glimpses of the great man were only possible through the legs of the galleries which were ten deep, but one thing that came across in bundles was this man had charisma and charm, and an exuberance crossing over into the galleries that were following. It seemed like following the pied piper no less.
I remember clearly arriving back home after two wonderful days with my father, who wasn’t a golfer himself, and settling down to watch Seve take on Nick Price and Nick Faldo on a mesmerising Monday finish.
Oh that chip from behind the 18th green to seal victory, perhaps the most beautiful chip you will ever see, burning the edge of the cup and the smile that followed. This was the great man’s finest hour in my opinion.
So imagine my joy when a year or so later four teenagers jumped into the back of a VW Beetle camper van and headed onto the M4 motorway from Swindon for the one-hour journey to St Pierre golf club in Chepstow, just across the Welsh Border, for the Epson Grand Prix, a match play tournament on the European Tour.
Almost the first to arrive, we headed to the practice ground to see who was around, just a handful of adults milling around like us waiting to see which players might arrive. As I recall we had no idea who was playing, we just knew that the European Tour was in town and we were golf mad. Our early morning wakeup call paid off in the most extraordinary way. Seve, with his caddy in tow promptly arrived onto the range with his own practice ball bag.
A semi-circle formed, there could have been no more than ten of us. Seve removed his sand wedge and after a hitch of the trouser leg clipped some gentle 70-yard pitch shots into a clear blue sky only to be plucked out of the air by his caddy who was wearing a baseball glove. I had literally never witnessed anything cooler in my life. At this moment I was sold again, not only on the game of golf once more, but also on this Matador from San Sebastion. Of course there is no guessing who won that week, the great man was a match play king, just another of his endearing qualities.
Inspired as I was along with my pals, golf took over all our lives. Schooling became something just to get through before heading to the club. My dream of trying to emulate Seve, to tour the world playing golf, burned so hard every last second of the day was spent trying to improve. Some five years after that glorious day at St Pierre I found myself as a proud holder of a European Tour card, wondering when I might get to play with my golfing hero.
That day would come a couple of years later at The Oxfordshire Golf Club during round three of the Benson & Hedges Classic, a round that wasn’t memorable in any way for Seve, but of course a day that meant the world to me. Little did I know what was to transpire a few years later. Seve had come up with the idea of the Seve Trophy, GB&I versus Europe, Ryder cup style to be played at Sunningdale Golf Club. I had squeezed into the team courtesy of Mark James deciding to go skiing instead, lucky me.
Monty was our captain and he paired me with Westwood in a four ball game on Friday afternoon, against the one and only pairing of Ballesteros and Olazabal. Quite literally, a dream has just come true, and what a ride it turned out to be.
The Spaniards had the honour, the crowd was plentiful and in a strange predicament, here to watch the great Spanish pairing – but also to support the English team on home soil. Seve went first. After two graceful practice swings, a wry smile to the gallery and hitch of the trouser leg, he took a wild thrust at the ball and sent it careering out of bounds over the pine trees. A look of total disgust had replaced the smile, the crowd didn’t know where to look.
His partner now under pressure, took his customary seven frantic practice swings, pegged his ball down low as he was prone to doing and promptly followed his partner out of bounds. Don’t think I have ever seen two faces etched with such disgust on a golf course before or after. Westwood and I sensibly found the left rough, Seve joined us with his third, Jose Maria lost another shot to the right, clearly both were not in confident mood.
Chattering away in Spanish they approached Seve’s ball some 250 yards from the green, a 5-wood was dispatched toward the putting surface coming up some 30 yards short in the rough. Westwood and I were green side in two. Seve surveyed the landscape, removed the wedge from his bag and promptly holed his pitch for a par, the smile had returned, as had our nerves. I just made a four and we went one up.
Seve lost a ball off the second tee, this time with a wild hook. Jose found the fairway then hit a 2-iron to an inch of the hole, all square in a flash then. The game continued in such a fashion, the Spanish pairing losing a ball on most holes, but the partner coming good, dovetailing with brutal efficiency. We won the match one up, we were ten under par, it was the most remarkable display of match play golf I have witnessed to this day – but only just, because as luck would have it, two years later at El Saler GC in Valencia the four of us had a rematch.
It was a carbon copy, unfortunately I was not in good form. However Westwood was sublime, Seve and Oli were ‘ham & egging’ beautifully once again. This time round, I secured a par four on the last to return another 1 up victory – 9 under par to Spanish titans – 8 under par. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement, 2/2 against my hero, the stuff of dreams.
Reaching out an arm to take the great man’s hand he politely removed his cap before clasping my hand, with a firm shake and a wry smile he went onto say “David, congratulations, well played. You know we have now played a couple of times and you are not a bad player for a tall man with short arms”. “Thanks” I replied with a quizzical look adding “but I think Seve my arms are both in good proportion, no?”. “No, no, very short arms indeed. Jose, what about David’s arms eh? Very short no?” Seve asked Oli. “So short David” replied Jose, “Tell you what, lets prove it, stand back to back with Seve and I will measure”
There I was on the 18th fairway at El Saler Golf Club, looking back at Monty waving for us all to clear the green, back to back with the great man – who we had had just beaten for the second time – along with the two-time masters champion Jose Maria confirming that indeed, compared to my hero my arms were 4 inches shorter than they should be.
It is safe to say that Seve left his mark on me, and it is still incredibly sad that he left us all when he did. The world of golf is worse without him, but I’m grateful to have had these most exceptional experiences around a man that made such a difference to the world he chose to inhabit.
Multiple European Tour and Ryder Cup winner David Howell joined private wealth management company Chase Buchanan as global brand Ambassador in 2021. Recognised internationally in the world of golf as a consummate professional, David proudly represents Chase Buchanan on and off the course.