Golf has lost its most charismatic figure and, arguably, its most important individual. Seve Ballesteros passed away Saturday at the age of 54, after battling a malignant brain tumor for the past three years. The five time major champion and Ryder Cup star was the pivotal man who led European golf’s renaissance in the 1980s.
He burst on the international scene at 19. He held the 36 hole lead at The Open Championship. Johnny Miller ran away with the tournament that weekend and triumphed at Royal Birkdale. But a new star was born: Seve captivated the crowd’s imagination with his ebullient attitude and short game wizardry.
He won his first European Tour title a month later in Holland. By year’s end, he became the Order of Merit winner (leading money earner) and had become a force in continental golf.
Ballesteros captured his first major championship three years later-winning the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s. There he showed off his marvelous short game and recovery skills. He hit only 9 fairways for the week. At the 16th hole, he famously aimed for the car park off to the right of the fairway. He later claimed that angle gave him a better look at the green—a response to those who pointed out his wildness off the tee. Nevertheless, he became known as the Car Park Champion. At 22 he was on top of the golfing world.
A year later he won his first green jacket and became the youngest man to win at Augusta. He grabbed a second Masters victory in 1983. By that time, the golfing world regarded him as an heir to Jack Nicklaus and the best player in the world.
But fans remember 1983 not for Seve’s Masters triumph, but for his first start in the Ryder Cup.
The biennial match-play contest had only recently been expanded to include Europeans. From 1927-1971 only the U.S. and Britain competed in the event; Ireland joined Britain from 1971-1977; and finally, all of Europe was included in 1977.
It didn’t seem to matter who the Americans played: They dominated the competition. Many thought Ben Hogan was out of line when he introduced his 1967 American team as “the greatest 12 players in the world,” but Hogan clearly showed how confident Americans were in the event.
Great Britain only won three Ryder Cups in the fist fifty-eight years of the matches (the 1969 match was halved when Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin’s short putt. Many regarded it as an act of great sportsmanship; but, as victors in the 1967 competition, the Americans retained the cup.)
Seve changed all that. The Europeans had never won the Ryder Cup on American soil, but played the U.S. team tough over the first two days of competition at PGA National: They were tied the Americans 8-8 going into Sunday. Captain Jack Nicklaus had to rally the troops. Prior to singles competition, the Golden Bear told his team: “I will not be the first captain to blow this thing. Now you guys show me some brass.”
Ballesteros played Fuzzy Zoeller in the singles. The two were tied after 17 holes: The match would be decided on the par 5 18th. Seve hit a poor drive into the left rough. His second shot landed in a fairway bunker, 240 yards from the green. To quote famous ABC golf commentator Bob Rosburg, he was “just dead.”
But Seve didn’t see it that way. He took out a three wood and looked to put it on the green. Everyone thought he was nuts. Dai Davies, the golf correspondent of The Guardian, called it “suicidal.” Seve put the ball on the fringe; escaped with a par; and halved the match.
Europe lost the 1983 Ryder Cup 14.5-13.5. Seve consoled his captain, Tony Jacklin, telling the Englishman that the Europeans would get the Americans the next time.
Indeed they did. Europe routed the Americans 16.5-11.5 two years later at The Belfry, capturing their first Ryder Cup in twenty-eight years. In 1987 Seve teamed up with his countryman Jose Maria Olazabel to form the most prolific Ryder Cup duo in history (they’d go 11-2-2, earning 12 points in Ryder Cup competition).
The Spanish Armada invaded Muirfield Village in 1987. They went into Jack’s place (where Nicklaus, appropriately enough, was the American captain) and put a shellacking on the Americans. The Europeans were up 10.5-5.5 after two days and cruised to a 15-13 victory, holding onto the Ryder Cup and winning their first match on American soil.
Ballesteros looked like he was on top of the world—but then, he’d been there awhile. In 1984, he won his greatest victory.
Seve went into Championship Sunday two behind Tom Watson and Australia’s Ian Baker-Finch. By the back-side, Ballesteros had caught the American and passed the Aussie. The tournament came down to the final two holes. Ballesteros made par at the treacherous 17th and went to the home hole thinking he needed birdie to win. He hit a wedge approach to fifteen feet. Behind him, Watson hit his second shot over the green, across the road, and up against the brick wall. He was dead, but Seve didn’t know it. Ballesteros looked over the curling right-to-left putt and gave it a good stroke. The putt dropped after, as Sports Illustrated quipped, “grazing the rim like… salt on a margarita glass.”
The Spaniard out-dueled Tom Watson that July afternoon at St. Andrews and captured his second Open Championship (denying Watson a record tying 6th Claret Jug and glory at the Home of Golf). He had become the top player in the world, according to super-agent Mark McCormack’s “World of Professional Golf Annals (which preceded the World Golf Rankings).” Watson never won another major; Ballesteros looked to be entering his prime, at 27.
Four years later, Seve put an explanation point on his major championship career. He always regarded his St. Andrews triumph as his finest hour, but certainly a case can be made that his 3rd Open crown at Royal Lytham was his best work. Starting the day two behind Nick Price and defending champion Nick Faldo (both future number one players in the world), Seve crafted a masterpiece.
He roared past Faldo-who shot even par on the final day. Poor Nick Price didn’t have a chance. The Zimbabwean posted a final round 69, and found himself two behind the Spaniard. Ballesteros posted 65 to once again become Champion Golfer of the Year.
No one knew it, but Seve’s best days were behind him. It seemed impossible to fathom: After all, he was only 31 and was coming off a fabulous season. He won a fifth Order of Merit title, earned European Tour Player of the Year, and finished the season number one in the World Golf Ranking. But a balky back and an erratic driver would erode Seve’s game.
By the early 1990s, Ballesteros’s game was gone. He came to the 1995 Ryder Cup a shell of his former self. His driving was so erratic; it seemed an aberration whenever he managed to hit a fairway.
Still Seve showed his match-play skill when he partnered with the little-known Englishman, David Gilbert. Playing in the afternoon foursomes, it looked like the pairing was sent out as sacrificial sheep headed to a slaughter. The duo went up against the hottest player in the world—Brad Faxon, who qualified for the team after shooting a blistering 63 on Sunday at the U.S. PGA Championship—and Peter Jacobsen, a two time Tour winner that year. Ballesteros embraced the challenge. Though his game was in disarray, he encouraged, coached, and willed the pair to victory. They won Europe’s only afternoon point, pounding Jacobsen/Faxon 4&3.
Ballesteros got creamed in the singles. Tom Lehman sailed past Seve 4&3. But that was the Americans only bright spot that Sunday afternoon. They blew a 2 point lead Sunday and Europe rallied back to win another Ryder Cup on U.S. Soil. Seve famously embraced his long-time rival, Nick Faldo, after the Englishman defeated Curtis Strange and secured a pivotal point.
Two years later, it was appropriate that Seve Ballesteros served as Europe’s Captain when the Ryder Cup came to Spain.
He set up Valderamma to maximize his team’s assets and to drive the Americans crazy.
The tight, tree-lined course proved to be a house of horrors for the U.S. that week. Ballesteros instructed the ground’s crew to narrow the fairways at the 300 yard mark (negating the distance of American bombers Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods) and to trick-up the par 5 seventeenth. There were a few questionable hole locations on that green—one of which made a fool of Tiger Woods. The 21 year old Masters champion (who hadn’t three-putted all week on Augusta’s treacherous greens) putted a ball off the green and into the hazard.Tiger’s mistake was a perfect illustration of the struggles Americans endured that week.
Europe had a 10.5-5.5 lead after two days. Seve was seemingly everywhere: He directed his troops like a field general from his custom-made golf cart, and he appeared wherever the action was. The Europeans made Seve a victorious captain the following day, defending the Cup and winning their fifth match in the previous seven competitions.
That concluded Seve’s golfing career, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to him as a champion. He was (take your adjective) an artist, a prodigy, a virtuoso. Nick Price summed his genius up best: “He could shoot 66 ten thousand different ways.” He could miss every fairway and hole out a couple times. He found a way to drain a putt. He did whatever it took to win.
Seve’s legacy cannot be quantified.
Fans flocked to him. Ballesteros is comparable to Palmer and Mickelson. All three drove the ball wildly, but never hesitated to go for broke. Arnie drove the green at Cherry Hills en route to his 1960 U.S. Open title. Phil hit his second into the 13th at Augusta off the pine straw between two trees to six feet, on his way to victory at the 2010 Masters. Seve, of course, hit it into the car park before claiming his first Open at Lytham.
Sure he won more often (50 times) than anyone on the European Tour. But he also made the Tour the force it has become today. It was semi-pro in comparison to the PGA Tour when Seve arrived on the scene; today, it has achieved parity (if not superiority) with the U.S. tour.
And most importantly, he reinvigorated the Ryder Cup. The matches were nothing more than a friendly exhibition before Seve’s first appearance in 1983. Ballesteros immediately made the Europeans competitive. His drive and passion for match-play heated up the matches considerably. Was it any wonder that by 1991 they called it “The War by the Shore?” The Europeans were a perennial loser prior to his arrival; they’ve owned the competition for the last twenty years.
He did it all with flair. Just watch him walk. He exuded confidence. And he won fans, wherever he went.