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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The greatest miracle on a course I ever saw was in Sweden, at the Scandinavian Open. On 18 [a par-5] his second shot landed in deep grass next to a greenside bunker. The ball was 12 yards from the pin, with 8 yards of sand between him and the flag. No chance! He took his putter and took a full swing and gouged it out — hitting grass first, on purpose — off the putter’s toe. The ball runs through the bunker and stops at three feet for his birdie.
PETER JACOBSEN, seven-time PGA Tour winner : I was in a practice bunker at TPC Sawgrass with [Jeff] Sluman and [Tom] Purtzer. We were all using wedges. Seve walks in and said, “That’s too easy. Try it with a 3-iron.” He took one swing and hit it a foot from the hole, and said, “There you go.” We fell over laughing.
NICK FALDO, who played on eight Ryder Cup teams with Seve: I called Seve “the Cirque du Soleil of golf” because he was a great show. I was there when he hit the 3-wood at the Ryder Cup in ’83 out of the bunker. It went off with a crack and a fizz [240 yards]. If it had landed on the green — it came up two yards short — that would have been the best shot I’d ever seen.
Having won the Open — he would hoist the Claret Jug twice more, in 1984 and ’88 — Seve targeted the PGA Tour, and Augusta National.
GARY PLAYER, nine-time major winner : We played together in the last round of the 1978 Masters. I was trailing. I turned to Seve and said, “These people don’t think I can win. You watch. I’ll show them.” I shot 30 on the back nine and won. On the 18th green, Seve was so excited. He embraced me and said, “Gary, you teach me to win the Masters! I never give up.” And when he won two years later, he said it was because I showed him how.
LEE TREVINO, six-time major winner : Seve was so competitive. Seve and Gary were the only guys I’ve seen who would line up a six-inch putt for a 7.
For Europe, he was the Ryder Cup’s messiah. My heroes — Tony Jacklin, Brian Barnes, Peter Oosterhuis — continually lost the Ryder Cup. Seve made it winnable again, in 1983. If you regard the Ryder Cup as the greatest event in golf, Seve is the major reason for that. He gave the Euros their self-worth.
Seve made [the Europeans] believe that we were beatable. When they lost by one in ’83, they were in the locker room and were so sad. And Seve said, “What are you so sad about? You didn’t lose! You won! You proved you can beat these guys!” And the next Ryder Cup in ’85, they walked it.
SAM TORRANCE, who played with Seve on eight Ryder Cup teams : The best Ryder Cup man, best team man, best back-room man ever. By a mile. He was awesome — is awesome.
TONY JACKLIN, who captained Seve on four Ryder Cup teams: In ’81 Seve was banned from playing in the Ryder Cup because he wanted appearance money for playing, and he was quite right. He was a huge draw. But the publicity wasn’t good for him. There was a three-man committee that included Bernhard Langer, because he was leading the Order of Merit at the time, and they decided he couldn’t play. John Jacobs and Neil Coles also wanted to ban him. It was ridiculous. It shows you how much they cared about winning the Ryder Cup. Of course [the Europeans] got drubbed by a huge margin, and their excuse was that it was the greatest American team ever. I became captain in ’83, and it was my job to get Seve back, and of course he came back and became the darling of the event again.
I played on the 1991 squad at Kiawah Island. He barely knew who I was, but he treated me like his best friend. I was one of five rookies, and he did what it took to beat the Americans — gave us shoulder rubs in the locker room, pep talks. I went out and beat Payne Stewart in my singles match, the reigning U.S. Open champion. Then, Seve seemed smaller in person than on TV. Later, I realized it was because he made me feel 10 feet tall. He was the heart, soul and lungs of the European team.
BRAD FAXON, two-time U.S. Ryder Cupper: In ’97 I played in the Ryder Cup [at Valderrama, in Spain], and Seve was the captain. I had just been through a very public divorce, which wasn’t really over, and Colin Montgomerie made some comments that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to play good golf. So, we’re getting off the plane, and Seve was there to greet us. He shook [U.S. Captain Tom] Kite’s hand and Kite’s wife’s hand. And he looked at me and said, “Where’s your wife?” To this day I believe he knew and was trying to get in my head. I said, “Look, which wasn’t really over, and Colin Montgomerie made some comments that I wouldn’t be in the right frame of mind to play good golf. So, we’re getting off the plane, and Seve was there to greet us. He shook [U.S. Captain Tom] Kite’s hand and Kite’s wife’s hand. And he looked at me and said, “Where’s your wife?” To this day I believe he knew and was trying to get in my head. I said, “Look, I’m just getting divorced,” and walked away. I was so pissed off. He apologized, but the damage was done. He’d put the dagger in. I respect him as a golfer, but that didn’t go over too well.
There are two sides to Seve — the generous, self-effacing man, and the man capable of gamesmanship, of coughing at inappropriate times. In the final of the 1991 World Match Play at Wentworth, against Nick Price, Seve was eating a piece of fruitcake while he waited for Price to hit an approach. Seve started making a choking sound in Price’s backswing. And they were friends.
In ’91, I was working for television at Kiawah, following [Paul] Azinger and [Chip] Beck as they played Seve and [Jose Maria] Olazabal. On the 10th hole, Seve called in an official and wanted a penalty called on them for using two different balls, a low-trajectory one and a high-trajectory one. But Seve didn’t call it right away. The rule is unless you call it right after it happens, it’s no penalty. Seve was pissed, and he and Olazabal came back and won the match.
PAUL AZINGER, veteran of four American Ryder Cup teams : My biggest Ryder Cup regret is what happened on the 10th tee, with Seve and Jose, to have a dispute on camera. It was an implied rules infraction. It was not a good moment.
He loved crowding you on the tee, breathing down your neck. The first time I played with him was in Cannes, France. On the second hole, a long par-3, I’m soiling myself. He’s only a year older than me, but he was already a god. There’s a big crowd watching. I clean shank this shot to the right. My ball hits a tree and lands behind me. I’m still in my follow-through, and I smell garlic, he’s so close. He looks at me and says, “Sorry, you’re still away.” I don’t know if it was gamesmanship, but it was f—ing funny.
THE FADING STAR
Ballesteros won his last PGA Tour event in 1988. He entered a deep slump in the 1990s, made worse by recurring back injuries, from which he never recovered. Seve wouldn’t give up. The seeds of the slump were sewn, it seems, at Augusta, in 1986.
He was at the height of his powers at the ’86 Masters. He was as straight as he’s ever been. He had the complete game. No weakness. He was leading Nicklaus by three or four shots when he hit it in the water on 15. Sometimes you’re the best, but you still don’t win. That was the turning point. Even though he won [the 1988 British Open], Seve wasn’t the same. He tried to make his swing perfect. He started being very technical, like Faldo. I said, “Seve, don’t be technical. Be yourself. Play with your nature.” He didn’t listen.
IAN BAKER-FINCH, 1991 British Open champion : It boils down to confidence. When the downward spiral starts, it’s always a confidence issue. I went through a similar thing. I missed 26 cuts in a row on the PGA Tour in ’95 and ’96 before I [gave up]. Seve kept going. I admire his perseverance, but I was troubled that he kept going when he didn’t have anything to prove. He could have become a famous course architect and not wasted 10 years grasping at former brilliance. Five major victories, then to go as low as he did? Not many of the great players have lost it like that and continued to struggle.
ROBERT BAKER, Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher and friend since 1992 : We met when Seve was struggling to find his swing. Back problems made it even harder. I’ve never seen anyone love golf as much as Seve, and that’s what hurt him. When he lost his game, he didn’t have anything to fall back on — golf design or fishing. He only had golf. He had to be great. He’d say things like, “I was Tiger before Tiger.” He went from long and slightly crooked to short and very crooked. Golf was everything. He fell from the top of the mountain. It would make him depressed. Some guys get so pissed off about golf that they walk off the course and break something. Then you get guys who walk off and cry.
TOM LEHMAN, who defeated Seve in the Spaniard’s final Ryder Cup singles match, in 1995: Our match was the greatest nine holes I ever saw anyone play. I was splitting every fairway and hitting every green, and Seve was all over the course. He was naked out there. But he was lofting shots over trees, hacking out of the rough, saving par from ridiculous places. His swing was off, but he still had that swagger that said, “I don’t care where I hit it — I’m going to make par.”
DAVID GRAHAM, two-time major winner : He didn’t accept retirement graciously. It’s a hard thing to do. He was bitter and maybe didn’t get the respect he felt he should have gotten. It shouldn’t take him getting sick to get the accolades. He should have gotten them a lot earlier.
In 2007, he finally announced his retirement from competitive golf, using the same press conference to deny rumors that he had attempted suicide. Then, last fall, he underwent four surgeries to remove a malignant brain tumor. “I’m fighting to win my sixth major,” he told reporters in March. At press time, he was expected to undergo additional chemotherapy treatment.
Seve is the greatest fighter ever on the course, and I know he’ll fight now [in his recovery]. Even the doctors couldn’t believe how quick he reacted to the surgeries and started walking around.
I think the reason he played poorly [before retiring in 2007] was because the illness was already there. I played with him in his last round, in Birmingham [on the Champions Tour]. He looked sad. On the 9th hole, the fairway is 100 yards wide, and he missed it right, in the trees. My caddie said, “He has trees and a lake. He has to chip out.” I said, “You just wait.” Seve hit a 2-iron out over the lake — the ball climbed and faded and faded and landed in front of the green.
I like thinking of when he made me laugh. Years ago, we went to the beach in Monaco. He wore black socks up to his knees, black leather loafers, and short black swimming trunks. Here’s this rich, famous golfer who’s won tournaments on a course that we can see from the beach, and he’s dressed like a Florida retiree. He always did stand out. Look at [pros] today. They’re all robots. Seve played different, looked different. He was the Spanish Arnie.
He was aggressive, like me. We played each other in the 1983 World Match Play. I wanted to beat him. It was special because I was old, and he was young. We went extra holes. On the 21st, he holed out from the woods to win! I still think about Seve. My dog’s named Mulligan. And I really think Seve’s going to get a mulligan.