Yorkshire says sad farewell to ‘el gran señor’

THE charismatic Severiano Ballesteros was already an Open Champion when he made his first appearance in Yorkshire at the age of 23 in September 1980.

He had won his first Open the previous year at Royal Lytham and St Annes when he figured on the cover of the programme for the Haig Whisky Tournament Players Championship on the famous Moortown course, which staged the first Ryder Cup match to be held in Europe in 1929.

Chris Limbert, then a relatively new member at Moortown but now the club’s secretary-manager, remembers Ballesteros hitting a nine-iron approach to the 18th hole clean over the green and on to the practice putting area.

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He also recalls Ballesteros on the fringe of the 15th hole, facing a steep downhill shot to the flag. “Most people would have used the putter – he had the pin out and hit the most amazing sand-wedge, sliding the club under the ball to impart back-spin, throwing it into the air and watching it run down towards the hole. He was furious it didn’t go in,” he remembered.

Ballesteros returned to Leeds to play in the Car Care International, but perhaps the closest links between this golfing gladiator and Yorkshire were resumed at the Portuguese Open in 1987.

Having been impressed by the caddying of Billy Foster, from Bingley, while the latter was working for Gordon Brand Jnr, Ballesteros surreptitiously passed a hand-written note to the Yorkshireman in the locker room asking him to consider taking over his bag.

Foster duly advised his employer of the approach and Brand urged him to take the job, opening the door to a partnership which lasted until 1995, taking in Ryder Cup triumphs, tournament successes round the world and ending in the suffering as the Spaniard’s game declined to the point where retirement was inevitable.

They enjoyed dozens of memorable moments and great shots, like the one at the Swiss Open at Crans-sur-Sierre that was so far away from the possible that Foster at first did not realise what was being proposed. When he did, he pleaded with Ballesteros to abandon any such idea.

Ballesteros was in the trees at the 72nd hole; progress towards the green was seemingly blocked by a 10ft wall and overhanging pine branches. Even chipping out sideways was fraught.

But Ballesteros glimpsed daylight between the pines and, although he was only 6ft from the wall, thought he could clear it. Foster and the gallery knew it was impossible.

The ball flashed between the trees, over the swimming pool the wall was guarding and out on to the fairway just short of the green. Then Ballesteros chipped in. It was a golfing miracle; a birdie conjured from a place offering at best a six to mere mortals.

The Ballesteros-Foster pairing came under pressure as the former world number one found his game disintegrating and he eventually told his caddie to look elsewhere as he could not guarantee to expect more tournament successes with the Spaniard, but the pair remained friends with Foster always greeting his former employer as “el gran señor”.

Typical of their latter-day struggle was an incident in the 1993 Majorca Open when a clearly distressed Ballesteros repeatedly bit his lower lip while attempting to cope with a cruelly destructive game.

All the while Foster was becoming increasingly upset by his player’s torment at figures soaring towards 20-over-par. Finally, he could take no more.

In a voice trembling with emotion, the Yorkshireman turned to Ballesteros on the 10th tee. “Let’s go in,” he urged. “There’s no point in torturing yourself any more.” Eyes blazing, Ballesteros replied: “No Billy. We are professionals. We must battle, regardless. We will carry on and finish the job.”

When, the last time they met Foster, now caddy to world number one golfer Lee Westwood, looked the great man in the eyes, there was no response. That sparkle that had transformed golf had gone. Ballesteros was fighting the greatest battle of his life – a struggle against brain cancer that even he could not win.

Comment: Page 10; Sports Monday, Page 11.