Severiano Ballesteros: Golfer whose swashbuckling style thrilled crowds, won him five majors and transformed the Ryder Cup

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The Independent Online

Just as football has its folklore involving the future legends of the game learning their tricks on the beaches of Brazil using balls made out of rags, so golf has the tale of Severiano Ballesteros.

The difference is that while Pele never visited the Copacabana until his late teens, young Seve’s unique talent was truly honed just like the chroniclers of his sport have always asserted.

Ballesteros was born to a farm labourer in Pedreña, a small village in northern Spain overlooking the Bay of Santander. Across the water is the provincial capital. Santander was the home to the members of the Real Club de Golf de Pedreña; Pedreña was the home of the people who worked there. This was an important distinction for the Ballesteros family. Indeed, it was a distinction Ballesteros bashed down. Within his lifetime, Pedreña became rather more than the backwater of the caddies or greens staff.

It would be wrong to say that Ballesteros came from a poor background. A frugal one, yes. His father worked the field around the golf club, although, interestingly, unlike the rest of his clan he was not obsessed by the game. While Seve’s uncle Ramon Sota was the Spanish professional champion four times and actually finished sixth in The Masters when Severiano was turning eight, Baldomero was a successful rower. Fortunately for golf, Severiano took the lead of his uncle and three elder brothers, who all became successful pros but who were all to be dwarfed by the achievements of their “bepe”.

The fairytale has it that Ballesteros did not have his first pair of golf shoes until he was 12 and his first full set of clubs until he turned professional at 16. But there can be no doubting that he owned a three-iron handed down to him by his eldest brother Manuel, who must have been sick of watching his skinny junior hitting pebbles with sticks. The boy was about eight at the time and Manuel much later declared that seeing Seve without the club “was like seeing a man with no legs”.

With just the one weapon in his armoury Ballesteros had to learn to play every shot – apart from, of course, the long-iron shot – the hard way. He been caddying at Real Pedreña for 25p but the rules then dictated caddies were only allowed to play the course on one day of the year. For the rest of the time Ballesteros would sneak on to the course late at night and during the day would practise on the beach between the course and the bay. It was there he mastered playing bunker shots with that three-iron, draws and fades with that three-iron, low and high shots with that three-iron. It was that peaceful setting where golf’s most riotous entertainer was born. Apt, really, as throughout his career Ballesteros would continually stress the need for “tranquilo” while sending golfing pulses soaring to unprecedented heights.

Ballesteros’s rise was rapid – with a mother who frowned on his chosen profession it had to be. He left school at 14 and turned pro two years after that in 1974. Despite having Ramon Sota in his corner he was stubbornly self-taught and never asked anyone, not even Uncle Ramon, for tips on technique. But just as valuable as any of his outrageous trick shots Severiano taught himself the fear of losing.

Manuel Piñero, the countryman with whom he won the World Cup in 1976, remembers seeing Ballesteros in the locker room 20 minutes after he had finished his first professional tournament, the Spanish Open. “He was sobbing with his head on his knees,” Piñero said. Manuel, the brother, confirmed the story. “He really believed he was going to win,” he said. “He was still a child.”

A child or not, Ballesteros already knew what it took. “At 12, the kid had the mind of a 21-year-old,” recalled Manuel. “He knew where he was going from the start. Golf was his life. When it rained the other caddies, they sat playing boys’ games and laughed at Seve when he came in – how you say? – like a drowning rat maybe five hours afterward. They no laugh for very long. They still carried golf bags, while Seve, he travelled the world playing tournaments.”

Manuel soon realised that his own, not inconsiderable game, would fail to stack up and scaled down his own playing ambitions to accompany Severiano as his interpreter, minder and sometime caddie. Before long the destiny began to unfold. After finishing fifth on his third start – the Italian Open – Ballesteros recorded seven more top 10 finishes before arriving at the 1976 Open Championship at Birkdale. If the tour insiders had already become aware that here was a magician with a mashie in his hand the world at large was just about to find out.

The American Johnny Miller won the Claret Jug, the floppy-haired 19-year-old with the carefree spirit won each and every heart. Ballesteros led for three rounds and was so sure of victory that he went dancing with his brother at a local nightclub on the night before the final round. In the event, Miller outscored him 66 to 74 but Ballesteros finished in a tie for second with Jack Nicklaus. The experience taught him well and even though he initially responded to Miller’s statement that the youngster might have won had he not blazed away at every shot with the retort that there would be plenty of time to be careful when he was older, he did heed the advice of the victor.

“In his speech afterward, Johnny said it was the best thing for me to finish second,” so said Ballesteros years later. “I thought he was mad, stupid! But not long after, I understood. It would have been too soon. If I had become a superstar that early, it might have been too much for me. If I had signed a lot of big contracts and gotten so much attention, I wouldn’t have had the career I have had.”

In truth, Ballesteros did become a superstar that week, if not in his homeland – which only truly acknowledged his greatness when he began winning and which, not understanding the vagaries of the sport, would lambast him whenever he did not triumph – then certainly in Britain. There was something about his vulnerability which warmed the galleries of a nation which has always been turned off by cold and calculating champions. “The fans in Britain were fantastic to me every time after Birkdale,” said Ballesteros in his latter years. “There was a good connection between them and me; a real good chemistry.” They had backed a winner.

The first of six Order of Merits duly arrived that year (the award that goes to the leading money winner on tour that season) and so too did the individual titles, as he set about compiling a record 50 victories on the European Tour and 87 victories worldwide. His maiden win came at the Dutch Open, six weeks after Birkdale, where he prevailed by eight shots. Ballesteros won seven more the next year and seven the year after as he established himself as the undeniable European No 1.

It said something about the scale of the impression he had made that by the time the 1979 Open Championship came around a first major success was considered overdue. Ballesteros was still only 22 and no one any younger had lifted the Claret Jug in the 20th century. Furthermore no golfer from continental Europe had won since the Frenchman Arnaud Massy in 1907. The expectation was clearly absurd, but Ballesteros lived up to it anyway. Indeed, that week at Lytham, on the Lancashire coast he set himself a whole new mark to which he would always be referred.

The nickname “The Car-Park Champion” was too good not to stick, however unfair the subject believed it to be. It was first uttered in a patronising fashion by the American Hale Irwin who had watched Ballesteros drive into a temporary car park to the right of the 16th hole during his final round and from there play a lofted iron to 15 feet, and from there hole out for the birdie which virtually assured him of victory over Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw. Ballesteros later claimed he meant to hit his tee-shot there, knowing that if his ball ended under a car (which it did) he would be given a free drop and that if it didn’t the rough would be well-trodden. However, his new moniker suggested that he had been in some way lucky, a charge Ballesteros was to fight against for the rest of his career.

There could be no cries of “fluke” when he won his first Masters the next year on his fourth appearance at Augusta and so, at 23 became the youngest player to don the Green Jacket, a record he was to hold until Tiger Woods launched his own assault on history 17 years later. There were, whoever, a few cries of “choker” as he contrived to squander six of a 10-shot lead with nine remaining. Nevertheless this major breakthrough established him in America although it was here where the controversies began.

First he was disqualified at the next major, the US Open, for turning up for his second-round tee-time seven minutes late. Everyone was blamed until he admitted it was his responsibility. Then the following year he became involved in a violent argument with the European Tour about appearance money. Ballesteros felt he was entitled to it; they didn’t. He resigned from the Tour and played in Japan and the US and this in turn led to him being banished from the 1981 Ryder Cup which saw Europe humiliated by the US at Walton Heath. The chances of Ballesteros becoming the Ryder Cup hero seemed extremely remote.

Far from triggering the rush of major titles everyone predicted, his first Masters led to three barren years on the major front. This was the time when he began to feel pain in his back; this was the time when the game – and indeed life – stopped being so straightforward.

By 1983, however, his genius was back on track as he blew away a packed Masters field in the final round by going through the first four holes in four under. After breezing to another four-strikes success he could not resists saying: “The first four holes were the best I ever played in my life. If people say I’m lucky after that, I want to be a lucky golfer for many years.”

As it turned out that was his last Augusta win – there were to be a few more close calls, not least when a mis-hit four-iron found water at the 15th and handed a final green jacket to 46-year-old Nicklaus – although another contest was to enter his life that year that was to mean his career was not simply to be judged on the number of majors in the locker.

When Tony Jacklin convinced Ballesteros to play in the 1983 Ryder Cup team the new Europe captain realised it was a canny move, but how canny was only made apparent over the next 14 years in which the US won only twice. While Jacklin was the brains in the resurgence, Ballesteros was its inspiration, as noted by the Englishman Nick Faldo, who was on the side that lost by one point in ’83 at Palm Beach Gardens.

“There we were in the locker room all dejected having just missing the chance of beating the Americans for the first time in three decades,” he said. “Seve walked in, saw us with our heads down and shouted, ‘Hey we should be celebrating – this was a beeeg victory.’ He was right and in that instant we all knew it. Before then, only about six of us believed we could beat them. Now, all 12 did. It changed there and then.”

It was more than words, however that Ballesteros offered to the cause. In all he scored 20 points out of 37 matches and his partnership with his fellow Spaniard José María Olazábal was the most successful in the history of the match, with 11 wins and two halved matches out of 15 foursomes and fourballs. Yet it was the edge he gave the competition which, was, perhaps his most lasting legacy. He became embroiled in a few rows with the future US captain Paul Azinger and more than any other member of either team gave off the impression it was personal.

In 1997 when it came time for him to captain the side, he manically drove his buggy from hole to hole, from match to match, unashamedly imparting advice as he travelled. He described the ensuing victory as meaning more than any other win, particularly as it came when the Ryder Cup was making its first to Spain, indeed to any country on the continent.

By then Ballesteros’s career had all but fizzled out as the back pain intensified. There had been two more Open victories, the first of which produced the iconic scene on the 18th at St Andrews when Ballesteros holed a 10-footer to beat Tom Watson and punched the air in delight. Four years later, again at Lytham in a tournament taken to a fifth day by a Saturday wash-out, Ballesteros conjured a final-round 65 to overhaul Nick Price. There were more heroics on the last with a magical Ballesteros chip.“That must rank as one of my best shots of all time,” he said, although he like everyone else had great difficulty in narrowing down his instants of utter brilliance. Other greats were destined to have more majors to their name, but surely no one could ever boast so many magic moments.

It was such memories, of course, which made his spiralling form seem that much more depressing. In the late 1990s Ballesteros steadfastly refused to give up the game even though it was plainly evident that the game had given up on him. There was still the odd shot that would take away the breath of the galleries but all too often his errant drives were so wide that even his recovery skills were deemed redundant.

Scores in the 80s were all too commonplace and he began to cut an angry figure at tournaments. He crashed out of the Europe’s top 100 after being the world No 1 for 61 weeks from 1986 to 1989, and by the turn of the century had crashed past the 200 mark on the Order of Merit. His last top-10 finish came in Dubai in 1998 and by the time he was fined and reprimanded by the European Tour for refusing to accept a penalty shot for slow play in 2003, his career was in effect over.

He put away his clubs for a few years, concentrated on his course design work and continued to promote the Seve Trophy (a Ryder Cup type match between Great Britain and Ireland and the rest of Europe that the Tour graciously worked into the schedule). In 2005 he vowed to make the occasional competitive appearance and still talked a brilliant game, and there was some hope that the Seniors Tour would provide a fitting climax when he turned 50. Alas, he finished last on his first tournament on the Champions Tour in America and at the 2007 Open at Carnoustie he finally announced he was to retire.

By then his private life had taken took a similar downhill journey. In 1988 he had married Carmen, a local girl whose father was a prominent Spanish banker, and the pair had three children. They divorced in 2004 and Ballesteros moved out of the family home. His bitterness was clear. He said: “The biggest mistake I made was to start playing professional golf when I was still only 16. I lost all my growing-up years. I haven't lived a normal life.”

He vowed to find one; alas he discovered increased torment. A few weeks before his retirement Spanish media reported that he had tried to commit suicide – a story he vehemently denied – after the death of his girlfriend, Fatima Garlaza, in a car crash. Ballesteros was on the way to fulfil an ambassadorial engagement at the Madrid Masters when he collapsed at Madrid airport in October 2008. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and over the succeeding months underwent multiple operations.

Inevitably, the “great escape” analogies were invoked, with Ballesteros himself putting his fight in golfing terms. He talked of receiving “a mulligan” and vowed to battle against the impossible, just like he always had. Such was his positive nature he even pledged to return to St Andrews for the 2010 Open, if only to play one shot. In truth, that was beyond him.

Ballesteros was to make only a few public appearances and for the last year of his life was largely house-bound. In the few interviews he gave, he continued to talk of his regrets with his family life, although the world’s reaction to illness told him he had nothing to regret professionally. The lifetime awards and tributes kept on coming until the end. He is survived by his daughter and two sons.

Severiano Ballesteros, golfer: born Pedreña, Spain 9 April 1957; married 1988 Carmen Botin (divorced 2004; one daughter, two sons); died Pedreña 7 May 2011.