Seve Ballesteros – the car park champion. That was in 1979 yet it is still vividly imprinted in the memories of so many people. The flamboyant young Spaniard, who had already proved himself to be the most spectacular golfer in Europe, had won the British Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s, ahead of the mighty Jack Nicklaus and ‘Gentle Ben’ Crenshaw. And, along the way, he had produced an incredible recovery shot after a wayward drive had left his ball in a car park! Seve was to do for golf in Europe what Arnold Palmer had done in the US before him – revolutionise it.
It was no surprise that Severiano Ballesteros became a professional golfer – his uncle, Ramón Sota, had been Spanish professional champion and had even managed a top ten US Masters finish in 1965 and Seve’s brothers, Manuel, who later became his manager, Vicente and Baldomero also became professionals. Born in April, 1957 in Pedreña in the Cantabrian region, Seve started to learn his golf on the beaches near his home, reputedly using a cut-down three iron handed down by a brother, and sneaking in to play the Santander course after dark. Certainly, it was this that helped him develop the incredible ability to improvise golf shots that was to become the trademark of his game.
Seve turned professional just before his 17th birthday and his impact on the sport was immediate although he had to wait 2 years for his first tournament victory, the Dutch Open, which was quickly followed by the Lancome Trophy in France. By the end of 1976, Seve was top of the European money list – would you believe with a total of 39,503 pounds sterling! That shows how much some things have changed. Over the next 20 years, Seve was to muster another 47 European Tour victories, as well as 9 on the US PGA Tour. But, inevitably, it is the 5 major titles, and the Ryder Cup campaigns, for which Seve will always be remembered in European golf. Together, of course, with the style in which he played.
Golf was never dull with Seve Ballesteros – he was never one to wear extravagant clothing, which was certainly not true of others in the early stages of his career. In one interview, Seve claimed, ‘I don’t want people to watch the way I dress. I want people to watch the way I play.’ And watch, they certainly did. Wherever Seve played, huge galleries were sure to follow him. I remember going to a Pro-Am day before the old Benson and Hedges Trophy at Fulford, York way back in 1988 and following Seve around the course. We were treated to an exhibition of golf shots, a running commentary from the man himself, and the chance to witness him giving advice to his amateur partners, instead of just ignoring them like 99% of the pros do. My most vivid memories are of Seve practising his bunker shots – whilst having bets with the crowd about how close he could get – and demonstrating his ‘low high fade hook’ shot – which golfers amongst you will have to try to conjure up a mental picture of!
After his British Open success in 1979, Seve followed by winning the Augusta Masters , both in 1980 and 1983, and then the Open again in 1984 and 1988, when he went to the top of the official world rankings. For many followers, Seve will always be linked with the successful Ryder Cup teams, that he did so much to inspire. To say that he was a mainstay of the team in the 1980s and 90s would do him a disservice – his partnership with José Maria Olazábal and his successes in the singles matches helped revitalise the tournament and bring Europe unprecedented success. No-one will forget his charismatic captaincy when, with the event held in continental Europe for the first time in 1997, he led to team to victory at Valderrama, in Sotogrande, southern Spain.
In 2000, Seve inaugurated The Seve Ballesteros Trophy – a team competition along the lines of the Ryder Cup but with Britain and Ireland taking on continental Europe – and this event has now established itself as an important part of the golfing calendar. This was also the year, Golf Digest magazine rated Seve as the best European golfer of all time.
During the 1990s, though, back problems had begun to plague Seve and limit his appearances and, definitely, inhibit his performance. It appeared that the man who could escape from any rough, any tree or any car park could not escape the passing of time. Despite the occasional round when all his old magical touches would reappear, many people were saddened by the sight of a worried looking Seve trudging around golf courses that he used to gallop round so energetically. Consequently, it came as no surprise to anyone when he announced his complete retirement in July, 2007, to concentrate on his thriving golf design business – he has designed some of the most prestigious new courses in the world.
Seve Ballesteros died on May 7th 2011 aged just 54 after a long battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008.