14 May 2021 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

The genius of Seve recalled

by Golf Australia

Seve Ballesteros Birkdale image
Ballesteros at Royal Birkdale in the 1991 Open: a genius of golf. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

Time, they say, marches on; but many will be shocked that ten years have passed since the best golfer of his generation, Severiano Ballesteros, died of a brain tumour, aged 54. It gives us another chance to consider the life, and contribution to the game, of the precociously talented Spaniard. The farmer’s son from Pedrena in Spain turned professional in 1974, a few weeks before his seventeenth birthday, and five years later won the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes in England.

He would end up winning five major championships (Open Championships in 1979, 1984 and 1988 and the US Masters in 1980 and 1983), five World Matchplay championships, another 84 titles worldwide and six Order of Merits. His Open wins made him a hero in Britain, but it was his heroics in America – and later in the Ryder Cup – that firmly etched his name among the greats of the game. When he started his career, Americans dominated world golf, winning 33 of the 40 major championships played during the 1970s. And they were almost unbeatable at the US Masters; only one non-American, feisty South African Gary Player, won the tournament between 1934, its first year, and 1980. In 1980 Ballesteros, aged 23, changed everything. He opened with a 66, shot 275 and won by four shots from Gibby Gilbert and Australian Jack Newton. Church bells in Pedrena rang out in celebration. The floodgates opened. Europeans then won 10 of the next 19 US Masters – and 20 of the next 40 – including Ballesteros, again, in 1983. It was as if the Spaniard had given non-Americans permission to win, that the American golfers were simply not all they were cracked up to be. Non-Americans – including Australians Wayne Grady, Steve Elkington, Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott – would go on to win major championships in America. Notably, Ballesteros was able to pinpoint the time his confidence – that most important weapon for golfers – deserted him. Strangely it was at Augusta, a course that was so good to him, at the 1986 Masters won by 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus. "It was my tournament. I was going to win for me and my father," he said. "I hit a soft four-iron for my second on 15, hit it fat and the club turned over and ball went short and left into the water. I should have hit the full five-iron. Once you start missing full shots and short putts, it stays in your computer. Once it is there, once you are aware, there goes your confidence."

And then there was Ballesteros and the Ryder Cup. In many respects, the story of the Ryder Cup can be told in two distinct phases – before and after Ballesteros. The United States dominated the event for decades, playing against teams from Great Britain and Ireland. Then, in 1979, players from continental Europe were allowed to play alongside Great Britain and Ireland, opening the door for Ballesteros and his fellow Europeans, including Jose Rivero, Jose Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer, Constantino Rocca and others.

Ballesteros competed in eight Ryder Cups, playing 37 matches for 20 wins, 12 losses and five halves. He then captained the European team to a momentous win at Valderrama, Spain, in 1997. He refused to be overawed by reputations and firepower of the US players, matching them shot-for-shot with flamboyant drives, majestic irons, miraculous recovery shots and improbable putts. Instead of being the hunted the Europeans became the hunters. Ballesteros’ fourball and foursomes partnership with Olazabal was devastatingly effective.

They played together 15 times for 11 wins, two losses and two draws. "They had such great chemistry and determination," said 11-time Ryder Cup player Sir Nick Faldo. ‘They didn't always win, but we always assumed they would. It's amazing how much of a lift the rest of us got from that knowledge." In his autobiography, Seve, written in 2007, Ballesteros talked about retirement from the game and his future. "Fortunately, I have many good years ahead of me and I want to enjoy them, to spend my live with my children and see them grow," he wrote. Four years later he died from an aggressive brain tumour. Who will forget Olazabal, Team Europe captain in 2012 at Medinah in Illinois – the first Ryder Cup since Ballesteros’ death – looking to the heavens in tears after the Europeans came back on the final day for a memorable victory? For the record, Ballesteros put Tiger Woods alongside Nicklaus and Sam Snead as the best golfers of all time. And where did he place himself among his peers? "In the top 15, but not necessarily 15th," he said, with this caveat: "If you ask me how I rank as a spectacular, exciting, crowd-pleasing player, I would be in the top seven. I was the best for 10 years. "

Said Nicklaus, winner of 18 major championships: "Seve’s impact on the golf world, particular in Europe, is immeasurable." When asked to choose the greatest player he had ever seen, Mexican Lee Trevino – winner of six major championships – nominated Ballesteros. "Jack Nicklaus made a plan," he said. "Tiger Woods makes a plan. Seve never made a plan. He just made things happen. He had something we didn’t have."

Richard Allen is a journalist, author and a Golf Australia board member

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