Golf was anything but a sport for the masses in Spain in the early 1970s. There were only three public courses in the entire country. You couldn’t have picked a famous Spanish golfer out of a lineup.
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And then came Seve.
The great Severiano Ballesteros defined Spanish golf, perhaps even what many of us thought or knew about his country, and revived Europe as a bastion of the sport.
And because of him, in a way, we have Beatriz Recari, the reigning champion of the Marathon Classic, presented by Owens Corning and O-I.
“Seve put golf on the map in Spain,” Recari said Monday during a visit to Highland Meadows Golf Club, where she will defend her LPGA title on July 17-20. “He said, ‘Hey, I come from nowhere and I’m achieving all this.’ He was so talented and natural.
“He was up there with the greatest in the game, up with Nicklaus, Palmer, and Watson, and he came from a country with no real history in the sport.”
Ballesteros, who died in 2011 after a three-year struggle with brain cancer, began to write Spain’s golf history and others, like Recari, have taken up the pen.
He came from Basque country in the north with a swashbuckling personality both brilliant and brooding, a game that was equal parts creative and careless, but which worked for him as he often invented spectacular shots in his mind’s eye. He won the British Open three times, the Masters twice, and brought Europe’s Ryder Cup team to life.
And in a country where golf was a game almost purely for the elite, Seve made the sport cool. There are hundreds of courses now.
In his wake came world-class players Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Sergio Garcia, among other pros. On the women’s side are lesser-known players, but several have played in Toledo in the past, including Marta Figueras Dotti, Paula Marti, and current LPGA player Azahara Munoz.
The most successful, certainly, has been Recari, who grew up in Pamplona, also in the north of Spain and not far from Ballesteros territory. She won twice last year (while also posting top-25 finishes in three major championships) and has three LPGA victories in less than four years on tour.
Could she be the first great female player from Spain?
“That’s the plan,” she said with a modest smile. “I hope I am.”
One of her regrets is that she never had the chance to meet Ballesteros. But she added, “It would be crazy to say he wasn’t an influence, an inspiration to me and so many others from my country. Every year, more and more people are playing the game. That all goes back to when Seve made us interested and showed us the game the game was accessible for anyone.”
Others have continued to pay forward. When Recari first turned professional at age 18 and joined the Ladies European Tour in 2006 one of her early backers was Sergio Garcia’s father, Victor, a club professional in Madrid.
“I call him Daddy Garcia, because he always took care of me like a dad,” Recari said. “It wasn’t easy getting support back then, but he helped me with whatever I needed. Outside of my family, I can count on one hand the people who helped make this career possible for me, and he’s one of them.”
Recari wants to make sure she takes full advantage of the opportunity, and winning the 2013 Marathon Classic with rounds of 69-65-67-66 was a big step. Although she can joke about it now, her initial impression was that she was an unpopular champion after last summer’s final round had produced a one-shot win over past champion and local favorite Paula Creamer.
With Recari leading by one, Creamer hit her approach on the par-3 16th hole within two feet of the cup while Recari was on the green some 30 feet away. When Recari made that dramatic putt she said the crowd reaction was, “OOHHhhhhh….” As in: oh, no.
She has a picture that was snapped the instant she made the final, winning putt on No. 18. She’s giving a fist pump to celebrate, but among the crowd in the background hardly anyone is clapping.
“I had to be realistic about it,” Recari said. “Paula is American and she was contending so, of course, the fans are going to support her. I had to take it that they were rooting for her, not necessarily rooting against me. Otherwise, it might have driven me nuts.
“I realize now that if Paula had done that to beat me in Spain, the reaction would have been the same.”
Probably so. But 40 years ago, maybe not. Then came Seve. And now comes Beatriz.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.