40 Reads: Passion and flair made Seve Ballesteros a Spanish legend

40 Reads: Passion and flair made Seve Ballesteros a Spanish legend

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40 Reads: Passion and flair made Seve Ballesteros a Spanish legend

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This story originally appeared in the May 13, 2011 issue of Golfweek.

Editor’s note: From the thousands of stories published during Golfweek’s first 40 years, our editors have compiled a list of favorites. We think you will enjoy revisiting them, too. We’ll spend 40 weeks dusting off some of our “best reads” from the archives and posting them here.

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Categorize this not as a confession, because that infers an acknowledgement of sin. Call it instead an admission, one for which there is not an ounce of embarrassment.

Raised at a time in America when you were either an “Arnold guy” or a “Jack guy,” I was neither. What stirred my passion for golf was a man of mythical proportions, for in a time before 24-hour television and dedicated sports channels, there weren’t many opportunities to see Severiano Ballesteros play, so what I read of him convinced me that he was one of a kind, a proverbial genius.

Turns out, I wasn’t alone.

Seve Ballesteros had a legion of loyal fans, most of whom fought back tears when word arrived May 7 that the Great Man had died at his home in Spain, surrounded by family. Brain cancer, first diagnosed in October 2008, had proved too much for even the fiercest competitor golf has ever known.

Ballesteros was too young, at 54.

But take solace: His legend is immortal.

He showed us it was OK not to be perfect, that it was more important never to quit. And while words may not be capable of doing his story justice, those who watched him play will forever try.

“He was an artist. The game played him,” said David Feherty, a contemporary on the European Tour in the 1980s who now works for CBS. “He was super-natural. I always felt he was still in control of the ball even when it was 200 yards away from him.”

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Said Padraig Harrington: “He was a genius – and he loved the game.”

Born April 9, 1957, in Pedrena, a fishing village on the northern coast of Spain, Ballesteros was seemingly hand-delivered into golf. The youngest of four boys, he lived near a golf course and his uncle, Ramon Sota, was a professional who would finish sixth at the 1965 Masters. But what sits at the core of Ballesteros’ legend is this: He would take a 3-iron given to him by older brother Manuel and go to the local beach and learn to hit shots – off sand, low ones, high ones, far ones, short ones, all with that one club.

It was this uncanny ability to employ his imagination and feel a shot that separated Ballesteros from his competitors. None had the Spaniard’s creative flair, which Feherty said began with the man’s hands.

“He would hold a club so gently,” Feherty said. “Like he was holding a day-old bird.”

Years into his professional career, Ballesteros had signed an endorsement deal with Callaway and visited the headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif. When an engineer asked Ballesteros to get wired so a computer could measure him, the proud Spaniard stepped back and held out his hands.

“My hands,” he said, “are my computer.”

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Ballesteros turned professional at 16 and won the Spanish Professionals Championship. Through Monday qualifiers, he got into a handful of European Tour events in 1974, and two years later he was tops on the Order of Merit, thanks to 10 top-10 finishes in 14 tournaments.

One was his first victory, the Dutch Open, but what thrust him onto the world stage was a stunning performance at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale where as a 19-year-old he tied for second with Jack Nicklaus, six behind Johnny Miller. It was the beginning of Nicklaus’ longtime admiration of the young Spaniard.

“His record, his charisma, his passion. He’s been great for the game,” Nicklaus said.

Certainly, nowhere more so than in Europe, where Ballesteros became an instant star. He followed that rousing introduction at Birkdale with three victories in 1977 and four more in 1978, each season leading the Order of Merit. Then in 1979, at age 22, he cemented his legend in the Open Championship at Royal Lytham.

Two behind Hale Irwin, who a month earlier had won his second U.S. Open, Ballesteros sprayed his driver, yet scrambled like a magician. With Irwin shooting a final-round 78, Ballesteros’ nearest threats were Ben Crenshaw and Nicklaus when, on the 70th hole, he slammed his drive some 60 yards right of the fairway.

His ball coming to rest near automobiles in the car park, Ballesteros got a free drop, then hit a deft wedge off of firm dirt to 15 feet. When his birdie putt rolled true, on BBC an announcer declared, “the golf gods are with the smiling Spaniard today,” but the true significance of that major triumph was this: Since Frenchman Arnaud Massy’s victory in 1907, a string of 60 British Opens had been won by Americans, Aussies and an Argentine, South Africans and Brits – but no one from continental Europe.

Ballesteros was now a pied piper, leading pro golf on that side of the pond in a new and exciting direction. Before the Spaniard, the European Tour “was a bunch of gardeners,” Feherty said, but as the ’70s gave way to the ’80s and Ballesteros blazed to victory at the 1980 and ’83 Masters, it was a different story.

“The European Tour,” Harrington said, when asked what should be Ballesteros’ legacy. “If you accept that the European Tour is very strong at the moment, every one of those players would be influenced by Seve.”

Though blessed to have been born into an era that also included Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam – major winners, all of them, and together with Ballesteros they formed the “Big Five” – it was the Spaniard who paved the way. He did it with a swashbuckling, caution-be-damned style, refusing to worry about driving it straight; he trusted his short game and imagination implicitly.

And all the while, he was saturated in duende.

“There was an animal magnetism to him,” Feherty said. “Being with him was like being with a big cat; there was some sort of feline in him with his movements.”

Yet what also defined Ballesteros was a limitless ferocity and determination. Handsome, yes, but he could apply a scowl that would melt a glacier. Wrote longtime Ballesteros admirer Bill Elliott in The Observer a few years ago: “As a player, Seve was one of life’s world-class whingers. Like John McEnroe on the tennis court, he fed off perceived slights. Top of his list was the entire United States.”

Ballesteros used that to his – and Europe’s – advantage when it came to the Ryder Cup. Against the Great Britain & Ireland entry, American golfers had gone 19-3 in the biennial team competition, but when 1979 rolled around and it became a European team, the landscape changed dramatically. And no one seized on the nationalism more than the Spaniard.

“In 1991, when I was with him on the Ryder Cup team, I remember thinking, ‘He looks a lot smaller than I imagined,’ ” Feherty said. “It was later when I realized he wasn’t smaller; I was taller – at least he had made me feel that way.”

That was the Ballesteros magic, drawing everyone together for a common goal: beating the Americans in a competition that used to be hapless.

With the Big Five in their prime, Ballesteros’ quest became a reality. Oh, he showed his precocious side in 1981 when he was voted off the European side because he played too much in America, but in 1983 his unforgettable 3-wood from 245 yards out of a bunker on the 18th hole at PGA National, up and over a steep lip, helped salvage a tie against Fuzzy Zoeller as the Europeans barely lost, 14 1/2 -13 1/2.

Afterward, Ballesteros lifted the spirits of his teammates by telling them, “We did not lose, this was a great victory. And anyway, you’ll see – next time we beat them.”

What followed were European triumphs in 1985 and 1987, the year in which Ballesteros joined forces with countryman Jose Maria Olazabal to form the greatest Ryder Cup team in history. They went 11-2-2 in the team formats and became inseparable, even to the point where Olazabal eventually matched Ballesteros’ two Masters victories.

“He was the spirit of the Ryder Cup,” said Fanny Sunesson, who caddied in those memorable 1980s matches for Howard Clark, then Faldo.

If the matches were contentious, that, too, was cut in the mold of Ballesteros, who might have been the sport’s most masterful head-to-head competitor since Walter Hagen, as his five World Match Play titles would indicate.

“He had a lot of villain in him,” Feherty said, smiling. “But in a Robin Hood sort of way.”

The Spaniard’s combativeness wasn’t relegated strictly to the golf course, either. Ballesteros – who would win four times on the PGA Tour in his career – in 1986 was suspended by commissioner Deane Beman for having not played the minimum amount of events the year before.

“Beman is a small man who wants to be big,” Ballesteros huffed. But showing he was not only a genius with a golf club but clairvoyant, too, he added: “Beman only cares about the U.S. tour. A man who loves this game should care about an international tour.”

When he followed his second Open Championship in 1984 – “the all-time greatest celebration,” Feherty said of the way the Spaniard punched the air with his birdie at the 72nd hole at St. Andrews – with a third at Lytham in 1988, Ballesteros was seemingly in his prime, just 31 years old.

Who was to know that there would be no more major wins and a close to his competitive career that was as sudden as it had been meteoric at the front end? Ballesteros won the Spanish Open in 1995 – his European Tour-best 50th victory – but at 38 his game was sadly on the decline. From 1995 on, Ballesteros played in 20 majors, but made only three cuts.

How had it turned so bad, so young? Partly because of a balky back, partly because technology was changing the game, and partly because Ballesteros turned away from the feel player he was.

“I don’t think he ever understood why he played so well. But when he tried to understand it, it didn’t work,” Feherty said.

As the game left him, so, too, did his life change. He and his wife, Carmen, married in 1988, divorced in 2004, and their three children – Baldomero, Miguel and Carmen – lived with her. Ballesteros shot 86-80 in the 2007 Masters, played a Champions Tour event the next month and finished last, then announced later that summer that at age 50 he was retired.

His golf skills had left him, and though that was sad, he remained the iconic hero to nearly everyone who had European golf ties – and to many of us who don’t.

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