Ireland’s adopted genius

RAY McMANUS doesn’t dispute Seve Ballesteros and himself once exchanged some swords on Portmarnock GC but suggests the tale might have been embellished.

The story goes that during one of the Irish Opens at the Dublin venue in the mid ‘80s a camera was clicked during the Spaniard’s backswing and he lost the rag with McManus. But McManus, clearly not awe-struck by the world’s greatest golfer at the time, gave back as good as he got.

“I’ve heard those stories about a golfer of some repute and myself,” laughed McManus, the founder of sports photography agency Sportsfile. “I’ve been told he asked me to stay quiet and I told him to carry on with his golf. It might have been a little exaggerated.”

Since his death in May, Seve’s life and achievements has been celebrated by one and all, especially at the PGA Championship in Wentworth as well as at The Open in Sandwich earlier this month.

But McManus’ yarn is but one of plenty that contribute to enshrine the love affair Seve had with the Irish Open from the late 70’s to the mid 80’s.

A three-time winner and a runner-up and a third-place finisher each on one occasion, he captivated Irish audiences with his audacity, charisma and downright bloody-mindedness.

He enthralled his fellow pros here too. Christy O’Connor Jnr counts himself lucky enough to have played alongside Seve in his first tournament as a professional in Holland in 1976.

But the one memory that stands out for him about Seve was his incredible finish to win the 1985 Irish Open. He needed to get down in two from the back of the green to force a play-off with Bernhard Langer when hares ran across his path.

As O’Connor recounted: “The apron was also as shiny as the green and 99.9% of the pros would have putted the ball. But he took a sand-wedge and hit it downhill.

“I’ll never forget the shot as long as I live because he hit it stone-dead and went on to win the play-off.

“I asked him afterwards and he said, ‘I can stop a sand-wedge much quicker than a putter going fast!’”

O’Connor Jnr’s other favourite anecdote about Seve in Ireland came after the 1983 Irish Open in Royal Dublin when the pros were congregated at Dublin Airport ready to fly to the next tournament.

“Seve wasn’t one to hang out but then very few were. You could count on one hand the number of guys around the bar. Seve was a practice man and very much concentrated on winning the tournament so you saw very little of him anyway.

“The only place we would have fun would be the airports where we were waiting for flights. He loved the Irish humour and the jokes. He got in on the act. He had been paired with my uncle Christy Senior in Portmarnock and he came onto the public phone in the airport and was quite loud.

“His English wasn’t the best – it was never great and it was worse in those days. He called his father in Spain and said, ‘I’m after playing with an old man and he’s nearly as good as me, dad’.

“That was his way of showing how much respect he had for Senior.”

Eamonn Darcy will be forever indebted to Seve for portraying him as the man who made the putt to win the 1987 Ryder Cup in Muirfield Village, Europe’s first on US soil.

“Seve was asked how it felt for him to hole the winning putt, which he did. But he said, “No, Darcy did that”.”

Darcy believes there were other more materialistic reasons why the Irish people took Seve to their hearts.

“I know guys who made fortunes on him,” he chuckled. “The bookies used to hate him because so many people backed him to win the Irish Open. We adopted him. There was always a connection with the Spanish and the Irish but he was able to say the right things too. He was very clever.

“He was so flamboyant, he was a winner and he had such a big smile. He could be so charming. He brought the crowds and he’s the reason why golf is so big today in Europe.”

A number of Seve’s trips to the Irish Open were lined by appearance fees but he always gave bang for the buck.

YouTube footage of that raking winning putt at Royal Dublin 26 years ago (which has been used several times over in homage since his death) and the crowd’s reaction shows just how popular Seve was.

“Tournaments were quite dull back in those days away from home and the Irish Open was just a pleasure to play in because of Seve,” said O’Connor Jnr. “You’d have 20,000 turning up for a practice round and it was just something special and remains to be.

“He always took the people into his heart no matter where he went to. He had a massive following. His way around the golf course wouldn’t be the way most people would go. He’d take the scenic route and still birdie from no matter where. People loved the excitement of his recovery shots.”

People saw a lot of themselves in his erratic drives. In his recovery shots, they then saw a genius. Their adopted genius.

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