In bed with Seve – when Ballesteros came to Teesside

Propped up on top of the bed, back to the headboard, legs straight out in front of him, Severiano Ballesteros is talking about life, love and loss.

Next to him, mirroring his position, is Paul Kimmage, award-winning sports writer and ex-pro cyclist of some renown.

Not quite Eric and Ernie, but the scene between the pair in a North East hotel bedroom borders on the comical.

Seve immaculately attired in logoed golf gear, jousting with a journalist probing way beyond the normal safe questioning of press conferences.

Me – I’m stood about four feet away, trying to act as if media interviews on the double beds of sporting superstars are regular events I take in my stride…

Sporting genius

The talents of Seve are playing to fans old and new during the Coronavirus lockdown.

His three Open wins are being aired by golf’s governing body the R & A across social media.

Tributes flooded in from around the world on what would have been the Spanish superstar’s 63rd birthday earlier this month.

A record 50 European Tour wins, including five Majors and the heartbeat of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, Seve was the driving force of European golf in the 1980s as it overturned decades of US dominance.

All flair and feel, Seve’s skills propelled him to world number one and to global adulation way beyond his sport.

In the twilight of his career, and in what would prove to be the final years of his life, Seve made the surprise decision to stop off in North East England and bring his star spangled show to town.

The Wynyard Club golf course on the edge of industrial Teesside to be exact.

Ignoring the obvious allure of courses and regions steeped in golf history, he chose the newly built parkland layout in a relative golfing backwater as the home for his eponymous trophy.

Parmos and Pintxos

The Seve Trophy was the Ryder Cup’s unofficial ‘little brother’.

It brought together the cream of Europe’s golfers in a four-day competition based on the Ryder Cup format – Great Britain and Ireland versus Continental Europe.

Recreate as near as possible the Ryder Cup cauldron, and out of it you get your strongest team to face the Americans the following summer.

A pretty successful formula as results from the noughties verify.

So why choose Wynyard for the 2005 event after previous visits to Sunningdale, Druid’s Glen in Ireland and Spain?

North East England had two trump cards to play: The economic firepower of the regional development agency One North East and an unmatched passion for sport.

One North East made early contact after hearing the event was looking for a home for its next edition. The ambitious Wynyard Club was vocal about its desire to stage what would be by far the region’s biggest ever golf tournament.

Seve and his Amen Corner team, led by his nephew Ivan Ballesteros, ran the rule over the Teesside course set in one of the region’s most exclusive housing estates.

A meeting hosted by One North East and club officials over Pintxos and more traditional local fare in the clubhouse helped seal the deal after Ivan played the Wellington Course and gave it his stamp of approval.

One North East would be the event’s main sponsor, with its acclaimed ‘Passionate People, Passionate Places’ tourism branding for North East England being promoted across national media as part of the build up to and during the event.

And the crowds would come they were promised.

Seve and his team loved hearing about the North East’s passion for sport – its Premier League clubs, Euro ’96 hosting success, tales going back as far as Ayresome Park staging the epic North Korea v Italy World Cup clash in 1966.

On the tee…

Was the North East ready to welcome Seve, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and 22 of the world’s greatest golfers with all the paraphernalia that entails?

No, not really, but as Richard Branson famously said: ‘If someone offers you an opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, accept it and learn to do it later.’

A few eyebrows were raised about the venue and whether the course and facilities were up to the standards expected by pampered Tour pros.

And what about the North East weather in late September when the event would tee off? Would it lash down for a week and prove a washout? Some things are beyond control, but others aren’t.

A £750,000 investment by The Wynyard Club extended the clubhouse – work completed courtesy of a Trojan-like effort by Stockton Borough Council’s trades team ensuring the players would feel right at home.

Lengthening the Wellington Course, adding new bunkering and preparing the greens to European Tour lightning fast standards took place over a year.

Wynyard ops manager Chris Mounter and MD Gary Munro embark on course improvements

A marketing and PR blitz ensued across media, the centrepiece a news conference at Hardwick Hall Hotel in Sedgefield, County Durham, headlined by Seve to herald the countdown to the event.

A team of creative experts – featuring the talents of Lisa Liddell, Chris Lines and Ian Ramsay with top advertising agency Different – seized the opportunity to showcase the region’s charms to a national audience.

Offered the chance by my employer One North East to lead on public relations for the event, I found myself with barely believable access to a man who had been my sporting idol for 25 years. Luck, chance, circumstance, all rolled into one!

Lost in translation

Northumberland meets Pedrena, London as go between

The success of the Seve Trophy from the North East’s perspective hinged on Seve, his charisma guaranteeing crowds and media coverage.

I found him a fiery, complex man struggling to accept his days at the pinnacle of the game were gone and never to return. But hugely charismatic with it – his effect on people incredible to witness.

On my first encounter with him (pictured above), he told me to stop talking, struggling to understand my nervous Northumbrian twang, asking if I was from Scotland.

I didn’t disagree, incapable of meaningful conversation.

‘Caddying’ for him for three holes in a report for Sky Sports, I merely handed him the clubs he wanted and watched with a sense of melancholy as he recreated his famous fist punching reaction to holing the winning putt on the final hole at St Andrew’s in the 1984 Open.

Seve liked what he saw at Wynyard: “I’m very happy that I’ve been able to see the course – it is a fantastic place and it was good to choose a place like this,” he told reporters.

“It is more a combination between links golf on the back nine and parkland on the front nine and it reminds me very much of my course back home.

“I hope the North East public will come to the event. They will see some great golf and I’m looking forward to watching Jose Maria play against Monty – I might even caddy for Jose Maria!”

At Hardwick Hall Hotel, Seve’s appearance outside to speak with TV crews turned a grown man into jelly.

Nipping outside for a cigarette break to escape a dull corporate seminar, he did a comedy cartoon-style double take before asking child-like if he could have Seve’s autograph.

The great man agreed and a lifelong story to tell was guaranteed for one beaming punter.

Other grown men were unable to speak, frozen when around him. Seeing Seve is shock enough, but bumping into him mid-week in a County Durham hotel. No chance!

Faded glory

Seve cut a lean, trim figure for the 2005 event.

On a strict training regime of daily cycling and swimming, he was in preparation for a return to play the Open the next year, convinced – despite media incredulity at the packed news conference – that he could recapture his former glories.

He was non-playing host at The Wynyard Club, his troublesome back still causing him problems, prompting him to hand over the Continental Europe captaincy to Olazabal with Montgomerie leading Great Britain and Ireland’s charge.

Seve was the man about Teesside in the run up to the event. Hosting a golf clinic at Wynyard for youngsters, guest of honour at a dinner at Ormesby Hall and unveiled to Middlesbrough fans at half-time on match day at the Riverside Stadium.

It was clear during unguarded moments that back pain was troubling him, as it had plagued much of his career.

His rapid fall from the top of the game to hardly being able to hit a fairway surely the result of crippling immobility.

He stretched out in obvious discomfort leaning from a wardrobe door in his room before meeting with Paul Kimmage, granted a one-to-one audience by top media man John Collard of Sports Impact representing Amen Corner for the event.

Londoner John (pictured centre above) found the array of North East accents as big a challenge as Seve and his entourage – Queen’s English at a premium all week as I translated for him at meal times.

Room service

Looking for a quiet space away from fans and other reporters after the news conference, retiring to Seve’s small bedroom seemed the only logical option.

Once in there, a lack of space means the bed is the obvious choice for the two to get to know each other better!

I watch on, pretty much redundant, John at the side of the room, as two masters of their respective crafts go toe to toe.

Their interview is fascinating. Nothing it seems is off limits. Love, life, golf, winning, losing, the collapse of his game.

His fiercest rival Nick Faldo is never far from his thoughts. Nor is the second shot to the 15th at the 1986 Masters, dumped into the water, and with it his chance gone of fulfilling a promise to his dying father of winning for a third time at Augusta.

On reading the interview again 15 years on, it is unsettling to learn of Seve’s curiosity about dying and what lies beyond.

He’s not sure what heaven is, that’s why he’s curious. But he tells Paul he’ll come back once he’s gone and let him know.

The interview’s appearance as a feature in the Sunday Times helps Paul pick up the prize as the interviewer of the year at the British Sports Journalism Awards once again – an accolade he would win five years on the bounce.

Game on

Seve hands the spoils of victory to Monty. Picture by Evening Gazette.

The lure of Seve attracted a star-studded turn out to the pro-am the day before the tournament start for real.

Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Harmison, Mick McCarthy and Paul Collingwood are the North East sporting greats lining up with the professionals playing the course 24 hours before the first blows are traded in competition.

“Real Madrid will never be as big as Racing Santander, Michael.”

Two and a half thousand people turn out to see the action – stunning Seve’s team, one telling me that’s more than for a day’s action at the tournament proper at previous venues.

Seve Trophy hits the headlines

Over the four days of the event, 40,000 fans pack the course to follow the stars. On the final day, crowds ten deep line the first fairway. The pros speak about how it has a Ryder Cup feel and they revel in the atmosphere.

There’s controversy for the tabloids to get stuck into: Seve angers pros with comments about modern day stars – Seve clarifies remarks.

Monty rows with Poulter. Monty gives his team a ‘positive rollicking’.

The European Tour roadshow is in full swing at Wynyard – tented village, media centre and manufacturers’ huge equipment vehicles. Sky Sports’ fleet of production lorries and a thousand miles of cabling line the course.

TV ratings on Sky Sports are great, executives loving the fact it is outstripping viewers tuning in for the prestigious President’s Cup being played in the States.

The local economy cashes in to the tune of a seven-figure sum boost generated by visitor spend from the event.

Even the weather holds fair – no sane punter would have backed against it raining or blowing a hoolie on Teesside in early autumn.

On the course, Great Britain and Ireland land the spoils with a five point win.

And behind the scenes a collective sigh of relief from the North East team deprived of sleep and with signs of premature ageing brought about by a year’s worry and anticipation.

The North East’s unbridled love of sport has played out once again.

The 19th hole

There was talk of the Seve Trophy making The Wynyard Club its spiritual home, to return in 2007. It didn’t.

Instead it went to Ireland watched by underwhelming crowds and then on to France for three more outings. The last event – with Seve’s name watered down by a sponsor’s branding in the title – took place in 2013 and there are no signs of it returning.

While The Wynyard Club blazed the trail for big name top flight golf in the North East, it’s Close House, Newcastle, which has taken up the reins, due to host the hugely successful British Masters for the second time in three years later this summer.

For Seve, of course, there was to be no renaissance.

A brain tumour diagnosed in 2008, cruelly cutting short his life three years later aged just 54.

His genius lives on, his swashbuckling triumphs and gifted shot making reaching a new generation in a digitally connected age.

Teesside and Seve were good for each other. Right time, right place.

The North East unexpectedly touched by his magic as he chased one final tilt at glory.

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