British Open in '06 showed greatness

Masters Moments: 1980 (0:30)

Masters Moments: 1980 (0:30)

The concern, the fear, was understandable. Nobody wanted to see the great man, the legend, embarrass himself. Not his family, friends, fans or foes.

Their worry was real, as they all had seen Seve Ballesteros in the practice rounds, the results not good. Competitive tournament golf had been rare, and the five-time major champion was about to put his game on display at a major championship, the British Open, for all the world to see.

"Seve's here?" was Nick Faldo's stunned reply upon learning that his longtime rival would be teeing it up in 2006 at Royal Liverpool.

Faldo didn't need to say what was painfully aware to all. Those who followed and played the game knew of Ballesteros' golfing demise -- how injuries had deprived him of his game for a decade and how he had not made a cut in a major championship in 10 years.

So although a great many admirers showed up to watch the Spaniard out of respect, no doubt there also were some curiosity seekers among the throng who wondered whether they might witness a golfing travesty.

This occasion comes to mind in the wake of Ballesteros' death.

Not the miraculous shot from the car park at the 1979 British Open. Or his near miss in the year's third major as a 19-year-old in 1976. Or his 1980 Masters victory, making him the youngest at the time to wear a green jacket.

No, this otherwise unmemorable tournament for Ballesteros in '06 at Hoylake is what stands out on this day.

Because it absolutely summed up the man's mystic abilities.

He shot 74 in the first round, a score he never would have admitted to being proud of. But it was magical nonetheless, magical in the Seve way, for his ability to get up and down from trash bins, for his way of seeing a shot that only he could see -- and pulling it off.

Ballesteros, 49 at the time, had not played in the Open since 2001 at Royal Lytham, where he missed the cut for the sixth straight year. He had played no tournaments at all in 2004 and 2005. Only a month earlier in 2006, he had shot a pair of 81s at the French Open, and his surprise appearance at the Open had many prepared to cover their eyes.

But Ballesteros was intent on playing. He did it partly for his then 15-year-old son and caddie, Baldomero, a fine golfer in his own right. But also for himself. The three-time British Open champion had visions of resurrecting his game, of playing senior golf. And although his score didn't show it, there were several flashes of the old genius, the escape artist at work.

His first-round score beat Faldo by 3 strokes, and Tom Watson finished just 2 ahead of him. Players such as Stuart Appleby and Luke Donald shot the same score, and Padraig Harrington was a stroke worse. Ballesteros ended up missing the cut after carding a 77 in the second round, but that would not overshadow the performance over his opening 18 holes.

"The practice days, I didn't show much and I wasn't very optimistic," he said. "I was nervous. I haven't competed for a long time. But I played with heart, as always."

As always.

You could see the determination in his eyes, the intensity, the grittiness. Sort of like the old footage from St. Andrews in 1984, where he pumps his fists with exuberance on his way to victory at the home of golf over Watson. And for those of us who never got to witness his true greatness, there was the hope we could watch him on the Champions Tour.

Less than a year later, that was exactly what Ballesteros set out to do. After playing in the Masters for the first time in years, he was poised to join the 50-and-older circuit in 2007. He had entered a senior event in Birmingham, Ala., and was scheduled to play the Senior PGA Championship a week later at Kiawah Island, site of an epic Ryder Cup in which Ballesteros was a main player.

But the results in Birmingham were poor, and Ballesteros withdrew from the Senior PGA, never to play in America again.

A few months afterward, Ballesteros was announcing his retirement from competitive golf at Carnoustie, site of his first Open as a teenager in 1975. Sure, he was 50, but golfers never retire, certainly not like this, right? There was no wave goodbye from the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews. No last stroll up the 18th at Augusta. Just a news conference. A sad one.

"I just don't have the desire," Ballesteros said.

And so the man who dominated the European Tour for much of the 1980s and who helped Europe to its first big victory in the Ryder Cup was done.

Ballesteros was known for his wayward drives and amazing recovery acts, but it all seemed to have caught up with him. He turned pro at 16, but by age 40 -- when many, many players are still competitive -- his game was gone. Ballesteros last made the cut in a major championship at the 1996 Masters at age 39.

Consider that Greg Norman, who led the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2008 for three rounds and finished tied for third at age 53, is two years older than Ballesteros. Contemporaries such as Bernhard Langer are still thriving at senior golf.

"The style he played with was just classic," Faldo said. "Tee it up, hit it, chase after it and hit it again. The energy of his shots was just fantastic. It was Cirque du Soleil on golf."

Many have likened Ballesteros to Arnold Palmer, who helped bring golf to the masses in the United States and became as beloved a figure in the game as there has ever been. Like Palmer, Ballesteros played with flash and flair. He was popular beyond his golf, connecting with the people, who were mesmerized by him.

As Palmer helped grow the game in the United States, Ballesteros did likewise in Europe. And where Palmer made the British Open popular again for American players, it was Ballesteros who helped energize a continent over the Ryder Cup, making it relevant again.

And then, of course, there is the sad similarity, the fact that both players stopped winning majors all too soon. Palmer's last major, his seventh, came at the 1964 Masters, when he was just 34 years old. Ballesteros' last, his fifth, came at the 1988 British Open, when he was just 31. He had just three top-10s in majors in the subsequent years, his best a fifth at the Masters in 1989.

The big difference, however, is that Palmer continued to play and play and play. He played in 50 straight Masters and was a mainstay on the Champions Tour. Nobody cared what he shot; they only wanted to see him.

Sadly, we won't get that chance with Seve.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.