One of a Kind: Friends of Seve Ballesteros recall his greatest glories and darkest days

Seve Ballesteros, 1979 British Open
Steve Powell/Getty Images
Ballesteros won the 1979 British Open when he was 22, making him the youngest Open champion in 86 years.

A few hours after Seve Ballesteros won the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1979, a small crowd toasted the young champion in a house near the course. A journalist asked the 22-year-old how much winning a major might change him. "It's not going to!" Seve said. "If you think I change, you come to me, and you stand in front of me, and you say, 'Where is Seve Ballesteros? Where is Seve Ballesteros?' And I will know what you mean."

Golf didn't change Seve. Seve changed golf. He won more than 100 times worldwide, including five majors, and he alone turned the tide of the Ryder Cup in the Europeans' favor. His record speaks for itself. Now others speak for the record. As Seve fights back from multiple brain surgeries, those who've known the Spaniard over these three decades share stories — of magical shots, on-course clashes, and Quixotic quests for lost glory — that reveal the complex man behind the icon.

THE PRODIGY

VICENTE FERNANDEZ, Champions Tour player and longtime Seve friend: Seve didn't have money growing up [in Pedrena, Spain]. He wasn't allowed to play the course he caddied on, so he would sneak out at night, practicing shots in the dark, creating his own swing.

LAUREN ST. JOHN, author of Seve: Ryder Cup Hero : He used to sneak onto Real Club de Golf de Pedrena. He said that his happiest memories were of shaping shots under the moon as a 9-year-old. He was driven by those who looked down on him. Wealthy businessmen mocked him. Other caddies laughed at his ragged clothes. He called it his "destino" to become a great golfer, and he grew a chip on his shoulder that never went away.

STEVE WILLIAMS, Tiger Woods' longtime caddie : One thing I loved about Seve is that he always loved caddies and had a great appreciation for us because he was a caddie himself. He knew exactly what a caddie was trying to accomplish.

THE CHAMPION

TOM WATSON, eight-time major winner : He was 19 when I first saw him, at Royal Birkdale [in 1976], and he had a chance to win the Open Championship. He had the fire and the lashing swing, and a great touch. But he had to prove to me that he was going to be great.

Three years later, Seve proved his greatness to the world, winning his first major at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. On Sunday, he famously got up-and-down for birdie from a parking area off the 16th hole.

ST. JOHN: Seve only hit one fairway that day. What many people don't know is that his drive on 16 was premeditated. He meant to hit it into the car park, some 24 yards from the fairway, because it gave him the best angle to the green. He didn't see obstacles that other people saw. He saw a different reality.

TOM WEISKOPF, 1973 British Open winner : He could get it up and down from a ball-washer and walk away without a drop of water on his hands.

THE MAGICIAN

His march to the winner's circle at Lytham was classic Seve: He missed his final seven fairways, but he played those holes in 1 under par. He earned an escape artist's reputation — wild driver, wilder imagination — that he would live up to time and again.

DAVID FEHERTY, former European Tour player : He should have played in a cloak, he was such a magician. He saw shots that you didn't. We were at Royal St. George's, and Seve's ball lands short of a bunker on a downslope. He has 15 yards to a tight pin. Instead of a wedge, he takes a 2-iron and hammers the ball into the grass lip on the far side of the bunker. It pops straight up and lands about 20 feet from the pin. It was like watching Merlin.

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