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The Legend of Seve

By John Hopkins   •   April 11, 2020

Seve Ballesteros, who died on May 7, 2011 at the age of 54, would have been 63 on April 9 – the originally scheduled first round of this year’s Masters. This story was first published on March 1, 2017.

In Augusta, the bells are pealing. Next week The Masters starts and Easter follows hot on the heels of the first major championship of the year. Already azaleas are providing blobs of blood red throughout this southern American city, and the church bells are delivering a chorus that chills the spine. Borne on a gentle breeze, the sounds sweep up towards the hilltop eyrie of Augusta National Golf Club. Those there, predominantly enthralled to a god called golf, may recall another reason to celebrate the end of the first full week of April 2017.

That Sunday, a man described as Europe’s answer to Arnold Palmer would have been 60. He, a golfer who played more eye-popping, indescribably difficult shots than any other European golfer, and arguably than any American golfer, may have had the words Ryder Cup written on his heart as Mary I of England was said to have Calais.

This man variously thrilled, intimidated, annoyed, entertained, aggravated, entranced, exasperated and inspired those who watched him and, in return, he received near total love and recognition. “There are perhaps two or three people in the sports world known by their first name,” Hale Irwin, a past US Open champion, said. “Everyone knew Arnie and everyone knew Seve.”

“Seve was the leader in Europe,” Ken Schofield, a past executive director of the European Tour, said. “He was the first since (Tony) Jacklin to win the Open, first European to win at Augusta. He led (Sir Nick) Faldo, he led (Sandy) Lyle, he led (Ian) Woosnam, (Bernhard) Langer. He gave them belief, particularly in the Ryder Cup. If you were playing with Seve in a foursomes or four-ball you knew you were going to win.”

A brain tumour, first diagnosed in October 2008, ended Ballesteros’s rumbustious fight with life on May 7, 2011, during the Spanish Open. Had it not, then Sunday, April 9, would have been the first day of his seventh decade. Hail Severiano Ballesteros Sota.

The 1984 Open Championship
The 1979 Open

Ballesteros won five major championships, one fewer than Faldo, two fewer than Arnold Palmer, three fewer than Tom Watson and four fewer than Gary Player. He was unquestionably the foremost golfer ever to emerge from mainland Europe. He loved Britain where he felt spectators accorded him the reverence he never fully received in his home country. His relationship with the US was rather more complicated, in part because of his disqualification from the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol when he, the reigning Open and Masters champion, failed to make his tee time in the second round because he claimed his transport had not arrived in time.

An American journalist is said to have irritated Ballesteros by repeatedly calling him Steve.

Then there were unkind remarks about him, the dashing prince from the east, when he arrived to plunder the tour in the United States. He told José María Olazábal that he once heard two American pros saying unpleasant things about him in a locker room in the US. An American journalist is said to have irritated Ballesteros by repeatedly calling him Steve. A tournament announcer in the US, the sort of chap who steps out in front of spectators and explains about the approaching players, is alleged to have said as the young Ballesteros approached a green: “Let’s give the little spick a big hand.”

To many, these barbs could be laughed off but with Ballesteros, who had a tendency to see insults where others might see compliments and had no difficulty in interpreting criticism where praise was meant, these were fierce blows to his pride if not his body. You never needed to tell Ballesteros there were dragons around the corner. He knew there were – even when they were friendly dragons.

The Masters, 1983

Despite this, Ballesteros felt as comfortable at Augusta National Golf Club as anywhere in the States. Its gaspingly fast and sloping greens and tricky runoffs played straight into the hands of the Spaniard who was one of the most imaginative players of any generation. Having seen a shot that no one else saw, he was able to bring it off more often than not. He greeted wild shots, which occurred from time to time, with the words: “Drive fairway all the time, no fun. Make big hook, cause excitement.”

No wonder he was so popular. He was as Palmer had been a few decades earlier, dashing, handsome, charismatic, oozing sex appeal. His popularity knew no bounds. Growing up in Australia, former European Tour player Wayne Riley had pictures of his golfing hero on the wall of his bedroom. The natural assumption would be that they would be of Greg Norman, Riley’s countryman. “Uh uh,” Riley said. “Seve was my inspiration. Seve was the greatest artist golf has ever seen. He could paint a picture of golf by playing it.”

John Paramor, the longtime chief referee on the European Tour, said: “Seve was the guy who pulled off the shot that we would like to have done ourselves but wouldn’t even have thought of.”

This was certainly one side of Ballesteros’s character that appealed to me. A couple of days after Seve’s death I was at Royal Porthcawl, my home club, practising delicate chips to a flag set a few feet the other side of the bunker. As I pondered the challenge I was facing I suddenly found myself wondering: “What would Seve do?”

What am I describing here? A poor golfer with ideas above his station on a windy practice ground? Certainly. But that is why Ballesteros meant so much to me. I have never found myself in a similar situation and thought: “What would Tiger (Woods) do here – or (Jack) Nicklaus?”

He made me imagine, however improbably, that by thinking of him I might play a better shot than I would otherwise. He helped me to dream, in other words. He gave me hope.

This is interesting. Why did I choose to think of Ballesteros at such times, a genius at the short game, and thus one far removed from me? Why not of another player who did not have his gift around the green? How could I possibly relate my level of skill to that of Ballesteros?

The answer is that Ballesteros engaged me and thousands of others with his consummate talent, his genius at the short game. He made me imagine, however improbably, that by thinking of him I might play a better shot than I would otherwise. He helped me to dream, in other words. He gave me hope.

The 1994 US Open

‘A Miracle On Grass’

“His short game was maybe the best ever,” Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open champion, said. “I think between he and Tiger it would be hard to pick one. I don’t think anybody I know even compares. Seve had the imagination first to see a shot and then the skill to hit it. A lot of guys can’t even see it.”

Seeking a way to explain his point, Lehman turned to Hollywood. “Did you ever see the movie Amadeus?” he asked. “Remember that scene where Mozart is ill and is dictating his requiem to Salieri, the court composer? Mozart is telling Salieri the notes and the instruments and Salieri is saying, ‘What? What? I don’t get it? I don’t understand what you are telling me to do.’ Mozart is the genius telling Salieri exactly what to write down and the guy who is simply a mortal musician can’t even begin to fathom what Mozart is saying. He is lost, totally lost.

“That is what separates the geniuses from those who are not. You can’t begin to fathom what they’re thinking. It’s the whole thing about not understanding what they are thinking and what they are doing. If we all could think that way we’d all be geniuses but we don’t. If you can think it then you can go and do it.”

“His short game was maybe the best ever,” Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open champion, said. “I think between he and Tiger it would be hard to pick one.”

The precise number of outrageous shots Ballesteros played will never be known because there were so many. Suffice to say that every player who competed alongside him has at least one recollection. Ken Brown said he saw two in the first nine holes of Ballesteros’s match against Lehman in the singles of the 1995 Ryder Cup.

For Lehman, the memory of one of Ballesteros’s shots in their match remains crystal clear in his mind even more than 20 years after the Spaniard had hit it. “It was on the fifth, a par-4 with water down the left,” Lehman said. “Seve had hit another bad drive into the right trees. He was in the rough, in the trees, having to come out of the rough, into the wind, over a pond, onto the green. Maybe there was gap in the trees, a little window, just in front of him.

“My brother was right behind Seve, watching him talk to his caddie, and remembers thinking, ‘What are they talking about? What’s Seve doing? There is no gap there. There is nowhere to go.’ Then Seve hit a 5-iron out of the rough, through that gap in the trees onto the green and two-putted for a par. That is what separates the men from the boys. There was no shot but he could see it and he could hit it.”

1995 Ryder Cup

Sam Torrance told one of his Ballesteros-the-magician stories and even in the dark of a late February afternoon in the billiard room of Torrance’s home near the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England, the admiration in his voice was audible. “Olly (Olazábal) said Seve was in a greenside bunker aiming at a pin 15 yards away over a flat green. You hit a bunker shot and 99 times out of 100 it will veer to the right with topspin or backspin. The sand moves it that way. Seve says to Olly: ‘Watch this,’ and he draws the ball when it lands on the putting surface. That’s impossible to do. It’s f—— impossible. The guy was a genius.”

I was lucky enough to be 20 yards behind Ballesteros when he hit that 3-wood from a bunker on the 18th hole at Palm Beach Gardens in his singles match against Fuzzy Zoeller in the 1983 Ryder Cup and as soon as I realised how daring a shot he was attempting, shivers ran up and down my spine. The ball came out of the bunker barely disturbing a grain of sand, bent 30 yards in the air and ended by the side of the green. That was unquestionably the most thrilling shot I have ever seen and I never expect to see another like it.

1983 Ryder Cup

But there were more, at least two from events at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland. Paramor’s eyes widened as Ballesteros hit a delicate 5-iron out of trees and curved the ball 65 yards on a flight of perhaps 130 yards. On another occasion Billy Foster was caddying for Ballesteros when the Spaniard brought off one of the most famous recovery shots of all time, hitting an iron from deep in trees also to the right of the 18th fairway – and with a wall directly in front of him.

“He was perhaps 10 feet from the wall and the wall was 10 feet high,” Foster said. “There were fir trees above the wall and he saw a chink of light in the trees about 4 feet above the wall. He had half a backswing. Four times I asked Seve to chip it out, wedge it onto the green and make par that way. I envisaged his ball hitting the wall, rebounding into his face and killing him and I’d have no boss and no percentage money. I pleaded with him. My last words to him were: ‘I know you’re Seve Ballesteros but you’re not f—— Paul Daniels. Chip it out will you, please?’

“He refused and I saw the dust come up from where his club hit the ground and I didn’t hear the ball hitting the wall. It went over the wall, through that gap in the trees, over four 70-foot high pine trees about 30 yards short of the green and landed one yard off the putting surface. Then guess what happened? He only went and chipped in for a birdie, didn’t he? I went down on my hands and knees to bow to him. I thought he was God.”

Ability such as this enabled him to lead the 1980 Masters by seven strokes after 54 holes and 10 strokes after 63. When he won, a few days after his 23rd birthday, becoming the youngest Master and being on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, he was the youngest man in history to have won two professional majors.

The 1979 Open

His first victory in a major championship had come in the 1979 Open at Royal Lytham, and his playing partner on that last day was Hale Irwin who had won the US Open in 1974 and again earlier that summer. Seve’s wildness off the tee in the last round, which included a drive into a temporary car park alongside the 16th hole, gave rise to the sneering phrase “the car park champion” or “parking lot champion.”

“I’ve never heard that expression and it wasn’t me who coined it,” Irwin said. “I won’t disagree with the terminology. One shot into a car park resulting in being called parking lot champion? Hmmm. One shot doesn’t define a champion. I think that is more of a derogatory term than anything else.

“Seve was very creative. He had great hands. He could create those shots that curve the ball. That was what he was so good at. Imagine that around Lytham he hit only three fairways (in the fourth round). That means you’ve got 11 opportunities to do something creative and in every instance he did.

The 1979 Open

“Did he have a tree behind him or a bush or was he in a bunker? No, not in all instances but at the same time Lytham is a hard course to come in to from the wrong angle and he found a way to get the angle right.

“I am not suggesting he didn’t deserve to win but you would think after that kind of performance off the tee that you wouldn’t see him hoisting the trophy at the end of the day. Boy, was it a miracle. As they said when the US team beat the Russians at hockey, it was a miracle on ice. This was a miracle on grass.”

Wales Open, 2000

‘The Full-Blown Artist’

David (Dave) Cannon, Europe’s pre-eminent golf photographer, received two pieces of advice when he began his career: fill the frame and focus on the eyes. “It’s all about the eyes for me,” Cannon said. “Tiger’s got the best eyes. They jump at you. But Seve had the best smile. He was the best subject to photograph, even better than Tiger because he smiled. I could have gone three months with Sandy Lyle or Nick Faldo and struggled to get one memorable photograph. “Every day I went out with Seve I knew I was going to get a memorable photograph. He had a magic smile. I think that was why the girls loved him so much. He had that incredible effervescent character that you could capture on film all the time.”

There it is, that four-letter word – love. It is a word used sparingly by one man about another yet listen to those men who use it unashamedly and without embarrassment about Ballesteros. Paul Azinger, with whom Ballesteros clashed in the 1989 and 1991 Ryder Cups: “I loved Seve. It is tragic that he has gone. I watched the Seve movie the other night, here in the States. It was really, really good. Seve was magical, the full-blown artist, very charismatic and all that.

“Every day I went out with Seve I knew I was going to get a memorable photograph. He had a magic smile. I think that was why the girls loved him so much. He had that incredible effervescent character that you could capture on film all the time.”

“I wouldn’t say he was the first artist in the game. Old Tom Morris must have been a great artist. Seve went from being the great artist to becoming a little more the engineer. Byron Nelson said long ago, there’s two kinds of players. Those who need to know a little and those who need to know it all. Seve went from only needing to know a little to wanting to know it all.”

Listen to Andy McFee, a senior referee on the European Tour: “Seve?” McFee said. “One of the ironies is that he had many fights with me and JP (Paramor). He was difficult to deal with and towards the end of his career he was almost impossible to deal with. He wasn’t himself by then. But it was a pleasure to be around him. We both loved him.”

1989 Volvo PGA Championship

Listen to Paramor. “You were always pulling for Seve. He was a genius, the most confident short-game expert I have ever seen. His hands were magnificent. They could feel any shot. I had some pretty rough moments with him but I had some fantastic moments watching him and being in his company. I regard it as an absolute honour to have met him.”

Listen to Sam Torrance. “Early on Seve had limited English. At one of his first events he was about two players down the range from me when there was this loud fart and honestly, the smell! There’s players running off the range with tears streaming down their face. Seve!

“He looked at me and said: ‘Hey, I eat food, no flowers.’

“He could have done anything he wanted to. He could have been a politician, a singer, an artist. Whatever he put his mind to he could have succeeded at. I loved him.”

According to Tony Johnstone, the Zimbabwe-born former European Tour player, Seve “… was the most naturally gifted player that ever lived with a fantastic sense of humour and humanity. Every single European Tour player that played in Seve’s era was fascinated by him and loved him. He was our hero, our Seve. I loved being around him. I loved playing with him. I always played my best when I played with him.”

Even six years after Ballesteros’s death, Johnstone could not stop the tears. “See,” he said in mid-conversation, waving his hand and pointing to his watering eyes. “I told you I would.”

Ken Brown wanted Ballesteros to come to Scotland for the Champions’ Challenge on the eve of the 2010 Open at St Andrews. “I tried to get Ernie (Els) to send his plane over to Santander to pick him up but he wasn’t well enough to make the journey. If he had made it, everyone would have cried. Everyone loved him.” At this Brown’s bottom lip started to wobble.

The 1997 Ryder Cup

‘The Pied Piper’

Among Spaniards, Ballesteros was accorded a God-like status. “I remember my great friend José María Olazábal and when we meet at Seve’s funeral we cannot stop ourselves crying,” Manuel Piñero, the Spanish golfer, said in his soft-yet-firm voice. “We loved Seve and the way he did things.

José María Olazábal at Seve’s funeral

“He was not the best player I have ever seen but he was the most attractive. As a player from tee to green Watson was the most impressive, also Nicklaus. But Seve was the most effective player I ever played and watched. The way he played, the way he showed emotions on the course that no other player showed. Certainly other players were more consistent but nobody showed more emotion and character than Seve.

“He was the man who lifted European golf,” Piñero continued. “He was the man who took on the inferiority complex Europe had because of America. He lifted the European Tour to the level it is today. I am sure he made players like (Pádraig) Harrington, (Sergio) García, (Rory) McIlroy proud to be European and made them believe they could be No 1 in the world.”

Billy Foster was explaining the complicated relationship he had with Ballesteros when he pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket. Scrolling through a dozen or so images he came to a photo taken on the day of Ballesteros’s funeral. In the foreground was the magnolia tree in Seve’s garden in Pedrena around which his ashes were spread. The view was down to the harbour and the golf course in the distance.

“Then I went into his house,” Foster said. “He had this trophy room, green jackets and the like, all his memorabilia. Not many people were allowed in but his brother let me in. I was taking these pictures when I went cold. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Look! There. See that urn. That’s used to contain his ashes.”

With caddie Billy Foster in 1994

Ballesteros employed Foster as his caddie for five years and Foster wouldn’t have missed them for anything. “He was nine years older than me. I was a teenager, he was in his early 20s and he was the man to watch. He was the Pied Piper wasn’t he?” Foster said.

“I’ve been to every Open since 1975 as a spectator and caddied at every Open since 1984 and I spent a huge part of my life growing up watching him, a global superstar. So to have the opportunity to caddie for your boyhood hero was something very humbling and special for a boy from Bingley. It was five years I will cherish to the day I die.”

It is suggested to Foster that Ballesteros might have been the most extraordinary, unusual, annoying, infuriating, rewarding, gifted golfer Foster had ever worked for. “All those,” Foster said. “Ninety per cent of the time I absolutely loved him, 10 per cent of the time I wanted to head butt him.”

If Ballesteros was Don Quixote then his Sancho Panza was Olazábal, the Spaniard who was born nine years after Ballesteros, and with whom he formed the most successful partnership in Ryder Cup history, winning or halving 13 of their 15 foursomes and four-ball matches.

With Olazábal at the 1993 Ryder Cup

“The chemistry was there between us,” Olazábal said. “Our backgrounds were very similar, farmers’ families not seen well by the members of the clubhouse and so on. In a way he did see me as a young Seve, yes. He knew my situation quite well and he had gone through a similar situation in his life so I think that brought the two of us together.

“We had the same philosophy of play and as soon as we stood at the ball and had the yardage we had a plan. There was no discussion over what type of shot to hit. That’s the club, hit a little fade. Fantastic. He was famous for telling players how to hit shots.”

On the eve of the 1997 Ryder Cup, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood were both admonished by Ballesteros, the Europe captain, who, seeing their bunker shots on the ninth green climbed into the same bunker and nearly holed his own shot. “That’s how you do it,” Ballesteros said, clambering out of the bunker and trying but not entirely succeeding in disguising the disappointment on his face at his players’ performance.

He never needed to tell Olazábal how to hit a shot. “We would agree straightaway,” Olazábal said. “We always knew.”

1997 Ryder Cup

‘Cry When We Win’

Golfers sometimes become associated with an event for the wrong reason. Despite success elsewhere, one title eludes them. Think of Sam Snead and Phil Mickelson and the US Open, Palmer and the PGA. On the other hand, talk of the Ryder Cup at any time between 1979, Ballesteros’s debut, and 2012, when 16 months after his death his image was on the Europe team’s shirts and helped to inspire those from his continent to a remarkable comeback victory, and Ballesteros’s name and involvement seems as much a part of the biennial competition and Europe’s success in it as the top of the chalice itself.

Ballesteros loved the Ryder Cup and lived for it. It was his stage and he bestrode it with obvious delight. To understand his performance in the event, it is necessary to accept that he thrived on being challenged and that he fought such challenges with the force of two or three men.

“Seve needed to feel that the world was against him. He wanted to lead, to beat people,” said Bernard Gallacher, the Europe captain in the losing campaigns in 1991 and 1993, and in 1995 when Europe squeaked to victory by one point. “He wanted to be first, the first Spanish captain, the first to play in a Ryder Cup in Spain, the first to win in Spain. He wanted to win The Masters. No Spaniard had done that. He had big ambitions, big aims.”

Much of Ballesteros’s life could be described as a series of crusades: a crusade to marry Carmen Botin after her parents had indicated they did not think he, a farmer’s son, was high born enough; a crusade to win tournaments in the US; a crusade to prove that European golfers were as good if not better than their American counterparts in the Ryder Cup; a crusade to persuade European Tour authorities and sponsors to pay him the same appearance money as they were paying Americans; a crusade to bring fame and honour to his country.

Of these, the Ryder Cup was the biggest. Whether it took place in Britain, in his beloved Spain or in the US, he wanted nothing more than to defeat the Americans. On a cold, grey afternoon during the 1985 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, I wrote that Ballesteros’s eyes seemed “… to gleam in the grey weather. He seemed supercharged. If he could have been plugged in, he could have generated enough electricity to power the National Grid.”

1997 Ryder Cup

Where did this desire come from? “His uncle Ramon Sota was a great player,” Piñero said. “I believe Seve watched Ramon play and practice. He wouldn’t admit he learnt a lot from Ramon but I think Ramon was the first master in that part of the world. Ramon always talked about Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus and that the Americans were unbeatable.

“It was impossible for him to beat them even though he was a fantastic player. Seve wanted to show his uncle and his people that he could beat the Americans. He wanted to show that he could do what some people thought was impossible. In the Ryder Cup he played with his heart and his soul.

“I was lucky enough to play with him in the 1985 Ryder Cup and we played the four matches together (the pair won three and lost one of their foursomes and four-balls and Piñero won his singles and Ballesteros halved his). We had tough games and difficult moments but he would always think we could beat the Americans even if we were 3 down. So long as there were holes to play he would say, ‘Come on, come on. We will beat them.’ That was Seve’s character.”

1983 Ryder Cup Team

Many of the eight Ryder Cups in which Ballesteros played contain stories of his heroic play, which included winning 4½ points out of 5 in 1991 and winning 20 and halving five of his 37 Ryder Cup matches. Just as important to his team’s cause was his obvious determination to win, which teammates found inspiring. In 1983, after Europe had been defeated narrowly by Jack Nicklaus’s team at Palm Beach Gardens, Ballesteros raised his colleagues’ spirits by persuading them that such a close defeat was tantamount to the victory that would be theirs two years later.

“The Sunday night at Palm Beach he was extraordinary,” Torrance said. “He made us all, even Langer, shout out, ‘We will beat them.’ He had tears streaming down his face. It was ridiculous the amount of emotion that was shown. He said, ‘Don’t cry when we lose. Cry when we win. We are going to beat them.’ ”

Sure enough at The Belfry in 1985 Europe won for the first time since 1957. Two years later Ballesteros was bouncing around Europe’s team villa early in the week at Muirfield Village saying: “We can win. We will win.” That Sunday, Europe won for the first time on US soil.

But two of Ballesteros’s most celebrated matches involved an American who matched him in desire. In years gone by it might have been the fiery Dave Hill or Lanny Wadkins and nowadays it might be Patrick Reed. But in the ’80s and ’90s it was Paul Azinger.

In his singles against Azinger at the 1989 match Ballesteros met someone almost as passionate and competitive as he. Trouble was almost inevitable and sparks began to fly as early as the second green at The Belfry where Ballesteros wanted to change his scuffed ball. Azinger, later backed up by Andy McFee, the match referee, refused to agree. Even so, Ballesteros won the hole. Azinger, putting from nearer the hole, missed.

Azinger: “Seve said to me: ‘OK, if this is the way you want to play today we can play this way.’ When that happened it hit me like a ton of bricks. When he said that to me it was game on. You get two guys that are really patriotic and it’s heads-up match play, me on you. It’s all out.”

McFee: “Azinger was raging ‘bloody Seve’ as they went up the third hole. Paul’s point was that Seve had done that to get under his skin. He thought that was gamesmanship on Seve’s part. The rest of the game nothing was conceded. There was a really tough atmosphere between the guys.”

Bad as it was, it soon got worse. On the 18th, Azinger was 1 up and hit his drive into a lake to the left of the fairway. Seeing this, Ballesteros drove well to the right, a long way back from the green. McFee was called in to determine where Azinger’s ball had crossed the hazard and therefore where he could drop it.

McFee made his ruling but Ballesteros, who had by now crossed from his side of the fairway to the hazard, disagreed and started shouting, “No, no, no.”

McFee: “He was shouting and screaming for some time until I went over and said: ‘This is done now. You need to get on with your side of things.’ ”

“It was a classic case of the median. Zinger wanted 40 yards up the left bank and Seve wanted to go another 30 yards back. That’s 70 yards between the two guys.”

Azinger hit a brilliant shot into a greenside bunker and got up and down to salvage a half with Ballesteros, who had hit his second shot into the guardian lake in front of the 18th green, and win the match.

As he was prone do, Ballesteros brooded darkly on this apparent injustice. Four years later he bumped into McFee. “You gave him the wrong drop on the 18th. You cost me that Ryder Cup match,” Ballesteros said.

“No, I didn’t,” McFee protested. “You hit it into the water not me.”

Reflecting recently, McFee observed: “Seve never forgot anything.”

“When you’re playing against someone you don’t revere them,” Azinger said years later. “I think ambition is what drove Seve. It drove me and you get two really ambitious guys going at it and stuff can happen. I think the respect was always there. People thought we hated each other but that wasn’t the case.

“When this thing was over I said to Seve: ‘You accused me of taking a bad drop.’ Seve said, ‘No, no. I never accused you of taking a bad drop. I accused the referee of giving you a bad drop.’ That’s why Seve and I never had any problems after that. Once we realised what had happened we were fine.”

Fine, that is, until the opening match in the Ryder Cup two years later when Chip Beck and Azinger faced Ballesteros and Olazábal. Beck and Olazábal drove on the first hole of their foursomes match. In those days Ryder Cup rules were that whatever compression ball a player started with, he had to continue to use that on every hole he drove at thereafter. On the seventh, Olazábal thought he saw that the Americans had not changed their ball as they should. “I noticed that Chip and Paul had played a 100 compression ball on the last hole and were playing a 100 compression there,” Olazábal, who was driving on the odd holes with Beck, said. “Chip was using a different compression ball on the first. I knew by the colour. One was marked in red and one in black.”

After the ninth hole Ballesteros accused the Americans of changing their balls. The referee, Warren Orlich, was called. Discussion went on for 20 minutes. At one point Azinger said heatedly: “Are you accusing us of cheating?” Ballesteros replied: “No, no. I never say you cheat. I say you make mistake.”

Azinger: “We got to a par-5 that we can’t reach in two and I said to Chip: ‘I’ll hit my ball off the tee. You can lay up and then I’ll be able to hit my ball into the green.’ We’re not allowed to do that. That was our first mistake. It was strategic stupidity, just forgetting the rules. They didn’t say anything and claimed we did it again on No 8. To be honest I don’t think we did.”

The referee ruled that because it was match play the challenge had to be made at the end of the hole where the offence had taken place.

Olazábal: “The ball they used on the ninth was the correct one so nothing could happen. We were well down but Seve and I shook hands and I said: ‘Seve, it doesn’t matter. We are going to beat them today. Let’s play golf from now on. We shot 4-under on the back nine and beat them, 2 and 1.”

In the afternoon four-balls, the two pairs met once more. And again the Europeans won. “I played my best golf I ever played in my life,” Azinger said. “I made eight birdies in 16 holes at Kiawah – and we lost.”

“Seve was honourable,” Azinger said. “He loved the Ryder Cup. His passion for it was over the top and so yes, stuff happened but it wasn’t like he hated me. One newspaper account said Seve said I took a bad drop and I replied: ‘The King of Gamesmanship accused me of taking a bad drop.’ We figured it out.”

When Azinger was diagnosed with cancer in 1993 one of the first letters he received, followed by a telephone call offering sympathy, was from Ballesteros.

If the experiences against Azinger were acrimonious at the time, Ballesteros’s match against Tom Lehman in the singles in 1995 has gone down as one of the most extraordinary in Ryder Cup history. Somewhat surprisingly, Ballesteros had qualified for Gallacher’s team at Oak Hill though his game had declined, most notably his driving. He played in the four-balls, winning the first afternoon with David Gilford, losing the second day.

After Saturday’s play Lanny Wadkins’s US team led Europe, 9-7, and one question facing Gallacher on the Saturday night was where to play Ballesteros in the next day’s singles. “I wanted him at No 1, out of the way,” Gallacher said. “Seve came to me in the locker room and asked: ‘Where are you going to put me tomorrow?’ I said No 1.”

Ballesteros: “You can’t put me at No 1.”

Gallacher: “I said: ‘If you don’t want to be No 1, do you want to play No 12?’ ”

Ballesteros: “No, no. It’ll come to the match and I’ll let the team down.”

Gallacher: “Seve, Lanny is going to go for the jugular. They are two points ahead and I want all my best players in the middle. That’s where the battlefield is going to be. Sam (Torrance), Monty (Colin Montgomerie) and (Bernhard) Langer are all there and (Nick) Faldo is (No) 8. If we don’t win the battle there, we are going to lose the Ryder Cup. I want you to play No 1.”

Ballesteros: “Ah, OK. I’ll play No 1.”

Lehman, who would become Open champion 10 months later, led the American challenge and thus the stage was set for what Ken Brown, covering the event for the BBC, would describe as “the greatest head-to-head match I have ever seen by a million miles. Two brilliant, competitive golfers, both so determined to win. Seve didn’t know where the ball was going. Every shot was a drama.”

Lehman had watched Ballesteros earlier in the match and decided on a strategy if he was drawn against the Spaniard in the singles. “I would ignore his body language, ignore what he was doing, ignore where he was hitting it. I would just know that he would find a way to make a par,” Lehman said.

“His body language was so strong. It was basically saying to me: ‘I may have hit the worst tee shot in the history of golf but if you don’t watch this next shot you are going to miss seeing the greatest iron shot ever struck.’ I tried to keep him out of my line of sight as much as I could. I didn’t want him physically in my space.”

During his singles match against Tom Lehman at the 1995 Ryder Cup

Knowing Ballesteros’s tendency to move his feet, sometimes clad in white shoes, when in his opponents’ line of sight (and sometimes to cough nervously and jingle coins in his pocket) Lehman had a game plan. “I was ready for him. I said: you know what, I’d like you to stand off the green when I putt.”

For the first 10 holes, Ballesteros’s driving was dreadful. His opening tee shot disappeared into trees. He hit only one fairway yet was all square after nine holes, 1 down after 11, because he chipped in on the second, hit miraculous recoveries elsewhere and all in all was giving a demonstration of indomitability that was extraordinary even by his standards. Lehman would later write that these were the greatest nine holes he had ever seen.

“I have never seen a man so possessed as Seve was that day,” Matthew Harris, the golf photographer, said. “It was as if he had been struck by lightning but instead of keeling over he got the electricity to carry him through. His whole demeanour was ‘by the way you are not going to win 8 and 6 today.’ I have never seen anyone control the ball in such an under the cosh situation.”

Lehman had expected something like this. “He was doing exactly what we thought he would do,” Lehman said. “He chipped in for a birdie on one hole. He was managing to make pars. I thought that so long as I keep playing my game I’d make a few birdies at some point and I started to do so in the middle of the round.”

Brown said that if Ballesteros had been playing anyone less mentally strong than Lehman he would have won, despite his erratic golf. “I agree,” Lehman said. “Seve would have beaten a lot of people that day which would have given the European team a huge lift. Just the fact that he kept himself in the match for so long helped his teammates.

“In almost any situation I’d go by, look at his ball, look at what he had, think he’s got no chance, and then he’d get it up and down. I didn’t have the ability to do that. I didn’t have the short game that he did. The history of the match is about the courage he displayed in the midst of having a game that really wasn’t capable of competing at that level. I have the most unbelievable respect for what he did that day.”

The 1995 Europe Ryder Cup team (Back Row L-R) Philip Walton, Mark James, Seve Ballesteros, Sam Torrance, Bernard Gallacher (captain), Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, David Gilford, Colin Montgomerie, (Front Row L-R) Ian Woosnam, Costantino Rocca, Per-Ulrik Johansson, and Howard Clark.

“Seve inspired the rest of the team by not being defeated early,” Gallacher said. “When they saw that Seve was all square after nine holes the other guys who hadn’t yet started said, ‘Wow, Seve! Let’s not let Seve down.’

Gallacher was with John Jacobs, the noted golf teacher, watching the match on television in the locker room. He struggled to believe what he was seeing. “Seve inspired the rest of the team by not being defeated early,” Gallacher said. “When they saw that Seve was all square after nine holes the other guys who hadn’t yet started said, ‘Wow, Seve! Let’s not let Seve down.’ (Indeed, they didn’t. Europe won the singles, 7½-4½, to win the match by one point.)

After the turn Lehman won a run of holes to defeat Ballesteros, 4 and 3, a bald statistic that conceals the details of the titanic struggle that preceded it.

“From his perspective and from the perspective of golf in general I think the game will always be remembered for his heart and his courage to hang in there in that match,” Lehman said. “I give speeches a lot and tell people if you had put me where Seve was hitting his second shots from and I played myself I would have beaten me, 10 and 8. From my perspective if you are going to beat anybody in a match in a Ryder Cup it would have been Seve. I got to play Seve and I got to beat Seve and how many guys can say that?”

Seve announced his retirement at the 136th Open in 2007.

‘A Great Life … A Sad Life’

The day of Ballesteros’s funeral a plane chartered by the European Tour left England to fly to Spain. Among those on board were Torrance, Woosnam, Faldo, Foster, English pro Roger Chapman, the European Tour’s Ken Schofield and George O’Grady and Peter Dawson from the R&A. On arriving in Spain they were taken straight to Ballesteros’s house in Pedrena.

The service was an emotional one, and Piñero and Olazábal were in tears. So, understandably, were Seve’s children, Javier, Miguel and Carmen.

“My dad was a great golfer but I can say he was even better as a dad,” Javier said. “I remember many moments with him, practising together, playing some holes, going on the bike, walking on the beach. If I had to say one of my best experiences, it was caddying for him in the British Open in 2006. I have thousands of memories from that event. He was not going to play the Open that year. I told him: ‘You can play because you won it three times. I would like to caddie for you.’ He looked at me and then said: ‘OK. Let’s go.’ It was very nice.”

Also in tears was Faldo, who began to cry when he started the walk down to the simple church and scarcely stopped throughout the service.

“Nick doesn’t take it from anyone unless that person is an equal,” Gallacher said. “Nick and Seve were both members of the major club. At Oak Hill in the 1995 Ryder Cup (after Faldo had got down in two from 95 yards to beat Curtis Strange and set up Europe’s victory) Seve was the first on the green to grab Nick and say to him: ‘You are a great champion.’ That really got Nick and meant a lot to him. That was why he was so emotional about Seve.”

Ballesteros’s had been a disparate life, one beginning in poverty, achieving greatness at a considerable cost and ending in clouds of sadness a few years after his divorce from Carmen. Its slightly unruly nature was echoed in the arrangements for the funeral where instead of everyone present being united in mourning one of the game’s greatest players, family rivalries created rifts that were obvious during the service.

“Carmen’s mother was there, so was Ana, her sister, and a couple of Carmen’s brothers,” Gallacher said. “Carmen’s mother was asked to move. It was awful. At the end of the day Carmen’s mother is the grandmother of Seve’s children. I thought it was ignorant.”

Torrance said: “Carmen was and is magnificent.” He repeated it for emphasis: “Magnificent. But the way she was treated was a disgrace.”

A few days earlier, players at the Spanish Open at El Prat, near Barcelona, had stood for a minute’s silence, eyes closed, in tribute to their former colleague, his memory clear in their mind’s eye. Similar scenes had taken place at golf tournaments around the world. Everyone, seemingly, wanted to pay their respects to Ballesteros.

But nothing and no one caught the sombre mood in golf so much as Chubby Chandler, the agent, who was at his home in England on the day of Ballesteros’s funeral. “I was in tears from the start of the day to the end,” Chandler said. “We all knew Seve was going to die but even so I couldn’t stop myself crying. He had a great life but he had a sad life.”


1976 Open at Royal Birkdale (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images); 1979 Open (Peter Dazeley, Getty Images); With the Claret Jug, 1979 Open (Peter Dazeley, Getty Images); 1979 Open (Steve Powell, Allsport); 1989 Volvo PGA Championship (Brandon Malone, Action Images); European Team with Ryder Cup 1997 (Bob Martin, Action Images); With Craig Stadler The Masters, 1983 (Brian Morgan, Getty Images); At Wales Open(Spencer Day, Action Images); Olazabal and Ballesteros (Richard Heathcote, Action Images); With the trophy. 1997 (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); 1995 Ryder Cup, Bunker shot (Steve Munday, Allsport); Signing autographs The Ryder Cup 1997 (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); The US Open 1994; (Bob Martin, Action Images); In bunker Ryder Cup, 1983 (Brian Morgan, Getty Images); With his caddie Billy Foster (Stephen Munday, Allsport); Seve Ballesteros, Paul Azinger 1989 Ryder Cup (Action Images); With Jose-Maria Olazabal, Ryder Cup, 1991 (Stephen Munday, Getty Images); Seve vs. Tom Lehman 1995 (Andrew Redington, Allsport); Europe Team, Ryder Cup 1983 (Getty Images); Europe team Ryder Cup 1995 (J.D.Cuban, Getty Images); 1993 Ryder Cup, Ballesteros and Olazabal (Action Images); Olazabal at funeral (Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images); Seve announces retirement (Glenn Campbell/AFP/Getty Images); Funeral procession (Getty Images); Skywriters (Jim Watson/AFP/GettyImages); Golf fans (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images); Seve shirts at the Open 2010 (Getty Images); European team bags (Paul Childs, Livepic/Action Images); Seve (Brian Morgan, Getty Images)