Maybe we loved him because we could identify with him. We were often hitting out of the woods, from bunkers, from parking lots, just like he was. The difference? Seve Ballesteros would often make a birdie from the woods, or the bunker, or the parking lot, and he’d do it with a style and grace that was impossible not to admire and envy.
Almost two decades before Tiger Woods, Ballesteros exploded onto the scene as a precocious 19-year-old, finishing tied for second with the great Jack Nicklaus at the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale. Having fashioned his game by hitting rocks on the beaches of Pedrena, Spain with a homemade 3-iron, Ballesteros was ready to attack any lie, any condition, any circumstance, making him ideally suited for the demanding conditions at Britain’s links courses.
His three British Open titles were triumphs of courage and ingenuity. His 1979 Open title at Royal Lytham and St. Annes was punctuated by a birdie for the ages from the aforementioned parking lot. His 1984 title at the Old Course at St. Andrews denied Tom Watson his third consecutive Open and fourth in five years. His 1988 title was, in retrospect, the climax of his playing career and featured one of the great final rounds in golf history. His 65 that day included an 11-hole stretch in which Ballesteros made two pars, two bogeys, six birdies and an eagle. It took a chip shot on the final hole that nudged the flagstick to turn back Nick Price. Vintage Seve.
In all, Ballesteros won five majors, adding two Masters titles to his three British Opens. His magical short game led him to six European Tour Vardon trophies for low scoring average.
But in assessing Ballesteros’ career, we can’t overlook his larger impact on golf. Seve was more than a great player. He was Europe’s version of Arnold Palmer, putting a sport on his back and selling it to an entire continent. Almost singlehandedly, Seve made the Ryder Cup an event, transforming a low-key, American-dominated series of exhibitions into one of the greatest spectacles in sports.
As the 1990s wore on, Ballesteros lost the ability to overcome his wildness with his magic around the green. His deft putter left him. But his charisma didn’t. Seve’s finest hour may have come not with a golf club in hand, but a walkie-talkie. Because of his legacy and influence, the Ryder Cup was held for the first time on mainland Europe in 1997, at Spain’s Valderrama Golf Club. As non-playing captain, Seve was the fire that ignited the European team against a heavily favored American team. Ballesteros, one of the greatest match-play golfers in history, willed his team to an historic win without firing a shot.
Lee Trevino put it best: “Every generation or so there emerges a golfer who is a little bit better than anybody else. I believe Ballesteros is one of them.” RIP.