Illustrations by Ser Habil

Seve Ballesteros: fighting back pain, he was king of the dartboard

Ahead of The Open in 1996 the Spanish golf icon made a low-key visit to a spinal specialist in London. And he had one additional request.

There is this memorable story about the late Seve Ballesteros that surfaced in my news feed last week, 10 years after his death. It was a private admission he made to a British sports journalist right at the beginning of his astonishing career: that he always struggled with back pain. If he looked like a picture of youthful health and happiness, it was nothing but a mirage. Because at no point in his life was he comfortable and without pain.

“At 23, he was king of his world,” journalist Bill Elliott wrote about the immediate aftermath of his first US Open win. “When I mentioned something along these lines, his face darkened and he told me to follow him. We moved into the kitchen where the connecting door to the garage had been removed and replaced by a trapeze. ‘See this,’ he said. ‘I must hang upside down from this for 20 minutes each morning to try to stretch my back. Every day I have pain. Healthy? No, not healthy.’ And he made me try it for a few minutes. A few minutes was all I could stand. Even in the earliest days of his success Seve knew that, for him, a long career was almost certainly out of the question.”

From the very start of his career through to his troubled latter years, he was always in pain and by the mid-1990s, his mind turned to alternative methods of pain management. Desperate to compete in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club, a tournament he treasured above all others, he asked his agent to find a back specialist. His agent made some calls and was referred to a leading spinal surgeon based in London, who was widely regarded as the best in his field: Dad.

Last month I called up Dad, who is now busy writing his memoirs from his small cottage in Dromineer, Co.Tipperary, to reminisce about that Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1996. I had read a draft of his memoirs, expecting to come across the visit to London by the Spaniard. But it wasn’t in there.

“Alright Dad,” I said. “Um, I couldn’t help but notice that the visit of Seve Ballesteros missed the cut in your memoirs?”

“Oh, you remember that do you?” Dad said, chuckling. “That was fun. It wasn’t a big deal… I think you will have more of a handle on that.”

Fun? Not a big deal? I rubbed my forehead.

“But why leave it out?” I asked. “It is a nice story about your life and work in London in the 90s. When pubs were still pubs.”

“That’s nice, Rob. Maybe I should put it in?” he replied.

If it slipped off the radar, it is understandable. Dad’s career stretches back decades, since he left his native Australia in 1969, and includes stints in Sweden, Canada, Hong Kong and the UK. He spent his life developing spinal care as its own medical specialty. If that sounds grandiose, that’s because it is. He was the world’s first full-time spinal surgeon, earning the nickname ‘Jack the Back’ for his work in spinal disorders.

John P. O’Brien with the Duchess of Kent at Duchess of Kent during her visit to the Sandy Bay Children’s Hospital in Pokfulam, Hong Kong in the early 70s.

When he moved to the UK in 1976 it was with the aim of developing spinal care further. He built a training hub at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire— called the Centre for Spinal Studies — for the world’s leading spinal surgeons and developed the Oswestry Disability Index (ODI), now an international method for assessing back pain. Awarding him with a Lifetime Achievement Award last year, the International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine writes: “He introduced the concept of a multidisciplinary team to assess, investigate and treat patients with chronic low back pain. He scoured the world to find scientists and engineers of all disciplines to contribute to the understanding of back pain. Many active investigators today can trace back his influence on themselves or their teachers or their teacher’s teachers.”

He turned the small border town into a ‘Mecca’ for all with a serious interest in understanding the human spine: “All were welcomed; all were expected to contribute presentations, practical research, and clinical input; all were entertained in the remarkable setting of the border country between England and Wales and its numerous hostelries.”

With Professor Steve Eisenstein at the opening of the John P. O’Brien Laboratory at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire.

As a kid growing up in Oswestry I had a front row seat to this medical revolution. Not that I knew a whole lot about it. I remember regularly doing Sunday patient rounds with Dad at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital. Visits from Dr. O’Brien included his four little assistants: me and my three siblings. We’d walk through the ward and stand at the end of his patients’ beds, as he introduced us all one by one.

It was a neat touch bringing the kids to work, as it always put a smile on his patients’ faces and showed them the human behind the knife.

As his career developed he became a ‘go to’ for people with severe back problems. Wherever they were, his name was one of the first to come up. I remember one of his patients flying to Oswestry from London in 1983 with a spinal disc problem. I was 7 years old and Dad brought us all to meet him at his hotel in the countryside. The patient’s name was Harrison Ford, and he had come straight from the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Harrison Ford by Lincoln Townley (via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t remember much about the few minutes we spent talking to him, only that I asked him which character he played in Star Wars. And then we ran around the hotel gardens like you do when you’re a kid.

By the 1990s Dad had left the NHS and was working at the peak of his career in Harley Street. Many patients who visited his practice had ongoing problems with back and sciatic pain following previous failed disc surgery. When you size up his story, it’s easy to see how a golf legend would get lost in the time zones of his life or in the minutiae of 10,000 different spinal complaints.

In the summer of 1996 I was in my early 20s, about to head to Newcastle University to study classics. It was the heady summer of Three Lions aka. Football’s Coming Home, Killing Me Softly and Ocean Colour Scene. England had just gone out of Euro ’96, losing on penalties to Germany in the semi-final, and we were all coming down from that. A week before that my sister had her 21st birthday on a barge in London’s Little Venice. On this particular Sunday morning I was hungover. And bored. I was sitting at home watching television when Dad called.

“Why don’t you come into the clinic,” he said. “I’ve got a patient I’d like you to meet.”

“Do I have to?” I asked.

“Just come in to the clinic. I’d like you to meet someone.”

I started the familiar walk to the London Clinic, crossing Baker Street and Marylebone High Street, up Devonshire Street then left onto Harley Street. I walked through the large iron gates and into the courtyard to an empty reception. All of the consulting floors were eerily quiet. Dad would see his patients in a second floor corner office that had a nice view onto the clinic’s courtyard. I walked up the back staircase to his room and as I approached I could hear his voice, the surgeon talking to the patient. I crept inside the main door and stood outside waiting and listening, wondering who this patient was that I had to meet.

I heard a Spanish accent, much quieter than dad. And when dad sensed my presence behind the door, he waved me in.

“Seve, this is my son: Rob,” he said to the patient.

I walked in and the man turned around. I was looking at Seve Ballesteros, and slowly my brain connected his face to the man I only knew through television and sports reports.

“Hi Seve,” I said. We shook hands and then he sized me up, checking out my posture and shoulders.

“What sports do you play?” he asked. No small talk.

“I play cricket at the moment,” I replied. I played for a South London cricket club called Battersea Ironsides, where I opened the bowling for one of their lower league sides.

Seve’s face darkened with confusion. “Cricket? That’s not a sport,” he said abruptly.

“Cricket is not a sport?” I repeated back to him, also confused, and then looked at dad, while waiting for the master’s next stroke. I thought he was joking, but he stood straight and his face was deadly serious. He wanted an answer. So, I felt duty bound to go into bat for a sport that I already suspected he hated.

“Well, the thing is, Seve … I’m a bowler, and that’s quite an active part of the game,” I replied. It was unconvincing. I wondered whether he was going to ask me for a fuller explanation for this poor choice of sport.

“You should play golf,” he fired back. “It is the best sport in the world.”

But I wasn’t a golfer. I lived in Central London. That’s the problem. But I think he already knew this when he looked at my shoulders. He could see. I did try and play golf when I moved to Australia in 2002. I was crap. My only memorable shot landed beneath the legs of an aggressive kangaroo. The lads I played with that day took all the spare balls out of my golf bag and threw them to scare it off. But it stood statuesque and watched until every last ball had stopped rolling. I gave up the sport soon after that.

As Seve’s dark Spanish eyes bore into the back of my skull, dad smartly interjected — pulling rank as the surgeon to the patient. He suggested some more floor stretches. I stepped back to sit on the patient’s examination couch, miffed about this awkward exchange. Also, admittedly, a bit pissed off that dad had not given me a heads up. A few moments earlier I was wandering around an empty hospital. I could have easily planned a better answer in that time. Instead, I was hopelessly defending cricket to Seve Ballesteros, a legendary Spanish golfer.

As Seve performed his stretches dad and I watched. It occured to both of us that this was not his usual spine injury patient. This was a total athlete. He jumped up and down like a teenager, did sit-ups and back rotations. I wondered why he was here. I didn’t see a man with a back problem. Or a man in pain. That’s the hidden curse — everyone presumes you’re fine.

Dad’s assessment of his back — the floor exercises and stretches — were a formality. When his agent called Dad to ask if he could give Seve some pain treatment to get him through The Open, it was clear he wanted an immediate solution.

As the consultation ended Dad turned to me and said. “Listen, Rob, Seve wants to go to a proper London pub,” he said. “I think we can arrange that, can’t we?” He smirked as he said this, because the whole situation now seemed wildly absurd to me. The empty hospital, Seve Ballesteros doing stretches, the cricket discussion. And now you want to throw a pub into the mix?

“Well, there are quite a few pubs around the corner, but it’s 12.30,” I said to Dad. In 1996 London pubs closed at lunch time on Sundays. But we walked, regardless, to a local and continued our discussion about sport and life — me, Dad and Seve. In the back of my mind I ran through possible scenarios: usually, I walk into these pubs with a few mates as unrecognizable Londoners. How would a London pub visit play out with Seve Ballesteros in tow? Seve can’t go in first, I thought. It would be a nightmare.

We arrived at a pub on Devonshire Street, The Devonshire Arms. I opened the door and walked in, with Seve and Dad following behind me. At the bar sat a few punters. No one looked up. But the landlord quickly darted around from behind the till to cut us off at the entrance.

“Sorry pal, we’re shut. It’s Sunday… 1 o’clock closing,” he said firmly. It didn’t sound like there was room for negotiation here. OK, well, that was that. “Do you know anywhere else that’s open?” I asked, but I noticed he had already clocked who was behind me. He frowned with his eyes locked and his mouth wide open as his mind worked out who he was looking at. Probably a bit like me an hour or so earlier.

“Excuse me,” the landlord said, looking through the left side of my head. “But are you Seve Ballesteros?”

“Ya,” Seve said, with a single firm nod.

The landlord was frozen in that moment. Stunned. Unaware perhaps, also, that he was in the process of kicking Seve Ballesteros out of his pub. And then in a second, he snapped into military-style action, and turned around to the people sitting at the bar. “No one move! Stay exactly where you are,” he said, “we’ve got Seve Ballesteros in the pub. Drinks are on the house.”

“Paul,” he shouted, “lock the door.”

Seve wanted an authentic London pub experience. He was about to get one. He looked around the Devonshire Arms and noticed a dartboard on the left. We approached the bar. “We’ll get this one, Seve,” Dad said. And I put an order in with the landlord who shuffled with glee back into position, awaiting an order from the Spanish master. I ordered two halves for me and Dad. Seve had a glass of sparkling water. As the landlord burst into action, Seve stepped towards the gap in the bar and asked him whether it was okay to play darts.

“Yes, Seve. Of course, Seve. If Seve Ballesteros wants to play darts, Seve Ballesteros will play darts,” the landlord said.

The whole pub was now humming to a new tune. Some of the punters knew who he was, others just loved the change of atmosphere — and the impromptu lock in — and watched as the landlord danced around. It was the kind of London reception that only famous people get. We were riding in the wake of Seve’s serious-but-casual charm offensive. As we took our drinks to the dartboard Seve looked around the room and inspected the state of the darts.

I stood next to him as he lined up to throw the first dart, like he was teeing off at Wentworth. He released it and it drifted like a perfect arrow straight into the bull. Thud! The pub cheered. The other two darts clustered around it, outside the bull. It was nuts: a couple of hours ago I was watching TV at home, now I was playing darts with Seve Ballesteros in a Marylebone pub. For certain people — the insanely competitive, gifted or talented — everything they do comes out in perfection, even when they’re scrambling eggs. Seve’s darts flew like his golf balls: fast, true and directly to where intended. Competing was a lost cause, I discovered, because this wasn’t fun for him. It may as well have been The Open.

Then I stepped forward. Imagine if I beat Seve Ballesteros at darts, I thought. Once again, he checked out my posture, and then looked at my footing and watched the flight of my darts with an intensely critical eye. Like we were playing for money and I was genuine competition. He muttered some tips to me in his quiet Spanish accent. The landlord, who earlier had blocked us at the door, was pulling out the stops now. Plates of peanuts and olives arrived. He was wondering how long this brush with fame would last. We all basked in the glory. Everyone was happy. London was delivering.

But within the hour it was all over. Seve announced his departure and we walked outside onto Devonshire Street and said our goodbyes. And wished him luck for The Open.

The treatment Dad gave him maybe got him through the tournament. But you wouldn’t have known that from the sports highlights. We knew. And I found that awesome, but also quite sad. The pain you endure for the thing you love the most. That afternoon in the summer of 1996 felt like a long weekend, like the Spaniard had come to London not for his own pain relief, but for ours… and the rest of the Devonshire Arms. Maybe it will make its way into Dad’s memoir now. That quiet Sunday charm offensive, where Seve Ballesteros stared at me and delivered those sage words: “Cricket is not a sport.” The golf legend, the back pain, the detour to the Devonshire Arms, the lock in. Seve Ballesteros, king of the dartboard.

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Rob O’Brien

Rob O’Brien

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Writer & producer based in Amsterdam. Stories for NYT, Independent & Penthouse. I write about people, life experiences, the everyday. Twitter: @robwriting