Seve Ballesteros’s father, Baldomero Ballesteros Presmanes, worked the land and fished for bream in the sea, and shot himself in the hand so he could fight with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War and not the Republicans whose ideology he disagreed with. Baldomero was given 20 years’ jail for treason but escaped and fought with Franco (who won and ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975).
Meanwhile, Seve’s mum, Carmen Sota Ocejo just worked cooking, cleaning, washing, and caring for Seve’s Uncle Vicente who would bequeath the family his home, and cause a rift in their village of Pedrena in northern Spain.
Seve had four older brothers though one died before Seve was born on 9 April 1957. As the youngest, Seve was the favorite and spoilt so his brothers gave him the worst jobs on the farm. Each morning from the age of five, it was Seve’s job to clean out the stables and then run the two kilometres to school. He’d run home for lunch, run back to school, run home again. He became a champion runner. After school he’d milk the cows by hand, muck out the stables and help his father in the fields.
A member of the local Real Club de Golf de Pedrena (now Royal Pedrena) gave Seve and his brother Vicente an 8-iron with which they’d whack around stones or balls they’d found or stolen. While tending to their cows they would practice. Once the cows ran home on their own. Seve’s father was very unhappy.
At the age of six Seve followed his brothers becoming a caddie at Pedrena. They’d find balls and sell them to the members. They would stand on the balls of members they disliked (Can’t find it, sorry!) and sell them to the members they did. While waiting for someone’s bag to carry they practiced.
The boys’ Uncle Ramon was the club pro and the premier golfer in Spain. Ramon had run sixth in the 1965 US Masters behind Palmer, Player and Nicklaus and with the prize-money purchased Padrena’s third ever automobile. Seve watched Ramon hit balls, and learned. But the club put great restrictions on caddies—Seve was once banned for a week for a practice swing.
He would sneak onto the course to play at dawn or at night if there was a full moon. He would skip school to play. He was expelled from school when he was whipped for a ripped book that he hadn’t ripped, and went home to drink too much wine for a 12 year old, returned to school and punched the teacher in the face, a lot.
He would play golf with a kindly local doctor who allowed his caddie to play with him against the wishes of other members. ‘I am a member here and I shall play with whomever I like,’ said the doctor.
His older brother gave him a 3-iron which Seve would take to the beach—a boy on a big stretch of sand whacking a three-iron, time and again, working it, shaping it, feeling the ball on the club. In the evening, he would steal onto the golf club course, just Seve and his three-iron. And he became really, really good.
Aged 13, he beat his 21-year-old brother Manuel, a European Tour pro. Aged 14 he won the Padrena Caddies competition. All his older brothers turned professional. Seve did too and qualified for the Portuguese Open. He qualified for the Open Championship in 1975 when he was just 19. On seeing links golf courses for the first time, he didn’t understand where the greens and fairways were amidst all those dunes. ‘They are there,’ said his brother Manuel, pointing. Seve was sceptical.
He shot 78–84 in the British PGA at Royal St George’s and 70-80 at Carnoustie in the Open.
He went to the United States and was nine holes of par golf from becoming the youngest man to get through Q-School and onto the PGA Tour. Then the thought of being on the PGA Tour and away from his family for months on end dawned on him, and he didn’t like it. He shot 40. And headed home, happy.
When he turned up at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England for the 1976 Open Championship, he was no longer under the radar. Touring professional Angel Gallardo, the father figure of the Spanish contingent, urged Golf Digest journalist Peter Dobereiner to ‘come out and watch Manolo’s brother. The kid is fantastic.’
After two rounds of the Open, Ballesteros had shot 69–69 and led by two over Johnny Miller. He added a third round 73 to be 5-under the tournament and still led by two ahead of Miller. Then Miller shot a blistering 66 in the find round to Ballesteros’ 74. And Ballesteros sobbed.
He’d sobbed after his first ever professional tournament too, the National Professional Championship of Spain. Expected to win, he’d finished 20th. He hadn’t even turned 17. In the Open he hadn’t yet turned 20 but he had expected to win.
Within a year people worked out why the expectations were so high for the young man from Spain. He won the Dutch Open in August 1976. He won the French Open in May 1977. He won the Swiss Open the same year as well as the impressively-named, if short-lived, Uniroyal International Championship (in a play-off with another 20-year-old, Nick Faldo). He went to Kenya, won their Open. He went to Japan, won their Open. He went to New Zealand and won the Otago Classic. With Antonio Garrido he retained the World Cup he’d won for Spain in ’76.
He hadn’t even turned 21.
He won the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes by three shots from Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus. An American hadn’t won at Lytham since Bobby Jones in 1926. Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated described it as a ‘strange old links’.
The gallery at Lytham also had a distinctive personality. Blackpool is a resort catering to the workingman on holiday and he was out on the links in force. There were record crowds, even in the horrid weather—it was wet as well as cold and windy—and they became more mob-like as the tournament progressed. They tore over the crosswalks, spilled out of the grandstands, shouted, cheered and even jeered at players they had not bet on. A pub behind the ninth green was a rowdy place indeed, where the competitors often heard calls of ‘Miss it! Miss it!’ as they bent over their putts.
It didn’t bother Ballesteros, though, who blasted his way around the course, got himself out of scrapes in his inimitable fashion, and wafted in putts with the soft hands of a surgeon.
And thus a man from continental Europe won the Open Championship for the first time since Arnaud Massy in 1906.
Ballesteros won the US Masters at Augusta in 1980 in a procession. After rounds of 66–69–68 he led by seven shots. Gubby Gilbert of Chattanooga and Jack Newton of Cessnock (in the Hunter Valley in Australia) chased him home with 67 and 68 respectively. But the Spaniard’s even-par 72 was enough for him to slide on the first of two green jackets that he would collect.
In 1984 the truly sensational moment of his career came when he rolled in a putt on the 18th green of the Old Course, St Andrews.
Everyone who watched remembers (and through the magic of YouTube, those who were not there can see) that moment, Seve Ballesteros on the 18th, pumping his fist like he was feverishly milking one of those cows from days of yore and punching the air to the four corners of St Andrews.
Up to the Road Hole, the par-4 17th, Ballesteros had bogied three rounds thus far. On the Road Hole, his drive went left out into thick rough, the imperfect place to approach the brilliant, storied 4-banger. The flag was behind the killer pot bunker front; the long skinny green ran almost perpendicular across him.
And so, Ballesteros had a couple of practice swings and then launched his 6-iron with sufficient grace and power to bounce the ball onto the green where it flirted with the sharp drop-off to the road that gives the hole its name, but it held. Under the pump, he’d hit a 193-yard six-iron pin-high. And the people watching knew: it was the shot of a master.
Over to you, five-time champion, Tom Watson, playing in the group behind on that fateful day at St Andrews.
Looking for three on the trot and needing one more title to tie the legend, Harry Vardon as the greatest Open Champion of all time, Watson narrowly missed a birdie putt on 16 and walked to the Road Hole all square with Ballesteros on 11-under.
Watson attacked with driver, cutting the corner of the hotel in the manner of a player seeking reward for risk. And he got it. The ball ended on the very right edge of the fairway, slightly uphill lie but perfect attack angle for the green.
Watson took a 3-iron from his bag, lined it up, thought better of it, plucked out a 2-iron. Lined it up, waggled, and went at it … and flared the ball high and right where it soared across the front quadrant of the green, scooted over the road, hit the wall hard yet didn’t bounce back sufficiently to give him any sort of backswing worthy of the name.
Not ideal, Tom Watson. He told Golf Digest:
The shot I tried to play was risky, but it was determined by the lie. The ball was on an upslope, so chasing it in low wasn’t an option. I was into a wind, and I had 195 yards to the flag. I tried to hit a 2-iron in the air and have it land softly on the green. I pushed it 30 yards right.
Ballesteros, meanwhile, hit his drive perfectly to left of the middle of the mighty expanse that is 18 leaving a tidy attack angle to the innocuous-looking yet scary 18th green. Doug Sanders in 1970 had called in ‘forbidding’. Sanders knew better than most. He missed a knee-trembling two-footer that would have won him the famous jug.
Ballesteros hit down on a three-quarter wedge that bit the ball hard and caused a plume of dusty sand to rise from the ground. The ball pitched and stuck on the green, 15 feet from the hole. Again, in the circumstances, the work of a master.
Watson, meanwhile, needed a ‘total miracle to get down in two,’ according to the TV man, who was right. He gripped down low on several clubs, tried several experimental variations on the relatively un-practiced ‘chop down hard but not too hard yet still exert sufficient force to make the ball whistle hard across a gravel road and up a hard embankment onto the green’ shot. There was no chance.
But Watson pulled it off! He chopped down hard on the ball yet with fluency, and saw his ball roll up the bank and to the back lip where it flirted with the death-bunker, but obeyed. Two putts and he’d still be in it, if only just.
As Tom Watson stood over his putt there came a mighty roar from 18. Seve had rolled in an uphill 15-footer that slowed and turned and felt into the hole. Watson knew what the noise meant. Everyone knew. They heard the roar in Edinburgh. Watson had to make a 30-footer or he was gone.
He did not and he was. And Seve, in his natty navy blue jumper with the Slazenger cat on the breast, drank long gulps again from a claret jug.
On the 72nd tee of the 1988 Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes, Ballesteros led Nick Price by one shot. His tee shot flirted with a bunker and some bushes on the right and settled in the rough. His 6-iron from there ended up pin-high in some fluffy rough left. The chip shot had several possible things that could go wrong. None did. He almost sunk it, the ball slowly lipping the right edge. He tapped in. He won.
He’d missed only three fairways. He’d missed only three greens in regulation.n He’d shot 65. On the first hole, he hit a 6-iron to two feet. He birdied 2, 3, 6 and 7 and turned in 30 that would have been 29 if not for a 4-foot miss on 8.
True to form he continued to attack. On 14 he hit a driver into the wheat and a rough looking lie. Instead of chopping out onto the fairway and taking his licks, Ballesteros attacked the pin 240-yards away with 2-iron, advancing the ball only half that distance, the ball ending in a bush, unplayable. He retreated 50 yards. Hit 7-iron, blind, to 15 feet. Nailed the putt for a bogey-5 only Ballesteros could claim.
On 16 he finally put a stake in Nick Price with his 9-iron to three inches. Later Ballesteros described his round as ‘one of those that happen every 25 or 50 years’. Asked if it the best he’d ever played, Ballesteros answered ‘Yes, so far'.