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'Seve' - a charming tribute to a golf maverick

Alex Perry
June 27, 2014
Seve Ballesteros was a huge favourite among the crowds © Renaissance Films
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"Who is this young matador of the links? He's tweaking all their noses."

Legendary commentator Peter Alliss was as shocked as anyone when a 19-year-old Severiano Ballesteros burst onto the scene with a runner-up finish at the 1976 Open Championship.

A wise, completely heterosexual man (my own father) - "One time he came so close to me I actually swooned" - was once privileged enough to see the swashbuckling Spaniard in the flesh. So the news of a biopic-documentary hybrid from director Jean-Paul Davidson, simply titled 'Seve', was most intriguing.

Golf has not had the best representation on the cinema screen. Sure, Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore were laugh-out-loud funny but the more serious golf films on offer - namely Tin Cup and The Legend of Bagger Vance - feature far too much artistic licence when it comes to … well, what actually happened.

Could 'Seve' have the draw of other sport feature docs, such as 'Senna'? Short answer: Yes. While this will have limited appeal to anyone outside the golf fraternity, anyone with a passing interest in sport can appreciate the story of arguably the most inventive player to pick up a golf club.

Of course, a couple of things are glossed over. In Ballesteros' autobiography of the same name, he speaks of his pain for his two-year-old brother, Manuel, who was stung to death by a swarm of wasps, as well as the time his father Baldomero shot himself in the hand to avoid a call-up to the armed forces. Neither were mentioned in the film.

But perhaps they didn't need to be. This is, after all, a tale of one boy's obsession that expertly intertwines Ballesteros' as a relentless golf-mad scamp and his heartbreaking death at the age of just 54 via five major championships, 50 European Tour wins and stoking the dwindling fire that was the Ryder Cup.

Jose-Luis Gutierrez puts in a flawless performance as a young Seve © Renaissance Films
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As the film builds towards Ballesteros' breakthrough on the professional circuit, the tension rises. The young golfer, played by the charming Jose-Luis Gutierrez, seemingly tries his hardest to spoil his chances of making it in the game he loved so dearly. Where do we start?

How about being caught breaking into and playing on the course at Royal Pedrena Golf Club? Or what is, indeed, the most striking scene which depicts Ballesteros' expulsion from school after a confrontation with his teacher for sleeping in class? If his parents had not been convinced by the growing whispers that Ballesteros might become the greatest golfer in the world, how different it might have been.

The filmmakers' decision to mix cinema with documentary is a risk, but one that pays off.

"While doing my research it became obvious that to understand Ballesteros you had to understand his youth," producer Stephen Evans tells ESPN. "This gave birth to the cinematic aspect of the film.

"This son of a shepherd from a very humble background had always wanted to play golf, but the answer was always 'no'. Can I have a golf club? No! Golf balls? No! Could he join a golf club? No!

"Everything was against him yet, somehow, he overcame the odds to be the greatest golfer in the world at the tender age of 23.

"To tell the full story we needed to show Seve during his formative years. The solution was to make a cinematic part to show his early years and then utilise archive footage to show his older years.

"Mixing drama and archive in this way is unusual and not an easy thing to do. Our editor and director rose to the challenge."

Indeed, young Gutierrez is a joy to watch throughout and has Ballesteros' mannerisms down to a tee (pun intended). But it nearly wasn't to be, as director Davidson reveals that a "fortuitous phone call landed Jose-Luis on our lap".

He adds: "Having looked throughout Spain for months and not found our young Seve, things eventually turned our way. He had almost all the attributes of real Seve that our research had flagged and was a lookalike to boot."

But while the cinematic tales are interesting, it's the fast-forward cuts to real video footage of Ballesteros that really keep you gripped - not least because, for all his charm and humour (and the aforementioned ability to make grown men swoon), he had an edge.

In one particular sequence, he explains his extortionate appearance fees - commonplace in this age but objectionable back then. "Between the ages of six and 23 I gave my whole life to golf. The game owed me something back."

While the segments on the Ryder Cup, a competition Ballesteros single-handedly resuscitated and held dearly in his heart, are relegated to footnote status, the short clips of the once bouncing Spaniard crippled by his illness are dealt with delicately and thoughtfully.

The previously unseen snippets alone make the film worth seeing, whether it be Ballesteros' back-and-forths with the galleries, Tiger Woods' thoughts on the great man, or the tender moment with close comrade Jose Maria Olazabal after being presented with a BBC Sports Personality lifetime achievement award.

You will laugh and you will cry at the romantic story of a humble nobody turned megastar, because, as Sir Nick Faldo notes at the very end, Ballesteros was "just a kid from his village".

A kid who changed the face of golf forever.

The previously unseen footage alone make this film worth seeing. © Renaissance Films
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'Seve', from Renaissance Films, is in cinemas nationwide from June 27. 20% of all profits will be donated to the Seve Ballesteros Foundation. Click here to watch the trailer.

Alex Perry is assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter.

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