Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros (1957–2011) was one of the greatest European players in the history of golf. Winning more than 90 international tournaments and five major championships, he was also a supremely entertaining artist of the links who helped popularize golf in Europe.
Severiano Ballesteros Sota was born in Pedreña, in northern Spain, on April 9, 1957. “It's a small village,” the golfer explained to John Huggan for Golf Digest. “There was one bar. One television in the bar. One telephone. One shop. No cars—seeing a car back then was like looking up to the sky and seeing the Concorde today.” The primary industries in Pedreña were fishing and farming, but the town was also home to the Real Club de Golf de Pedreña, which the family's small home overlooked. Seve's father, Baldoremo Ballesteros, was a farmer and sometime boat racer, and his uncle Ramôn was a professional golfer who served as a role model for his young nephew.
The family's modest means did not permit club membership, and upon taking up golf at the age of nine Ballesteros often had to practice his shots on a nearby beach. His first piece of equipment was a discarded club head to which he carefully attached a stick. Sometimes he sneaked onto the course at night or practiced chip shots from his own backyard. Soon, though, he was old enough to work as a caddie and to compete for his first purse, betting on rounds of golf played against his co-workers. When Ballesteros was ten, he won his first of five caddies’ championships, and that gave him official course privileges. He came back to win after a disastrous score of 10 on the first hole, setting a pattern that would last for most of his career. Between golf and helping his father with a herd of cows on the family farm, Ballesteros had little time for school, and he dropped out when he was 14.
In early 1974, Ballesteros and some friends were banned from the Real Club de Golf for displacing some drainage tubes while horsing around on the course. At this point, he decided that it was time to make money as a golfer and turned pro. The very beginning of his career was slow—he scored an 89 in the first round at the Portuguese Open—but later in the year he placed fifth in the Italian Open and won Spanish Young Professional tournaments in both 1974 and 1975. Soon Ballesteros was ranked as Spain's top player under 25.
The year 1976 marked Ballesteros's breakthrough: he entered 34 tournaments and missed the cut (a winnowing of the field after two of four rounds) just once. Now aged 19, he tied for second place at the Open Championship at England's Royal Birkdale course, just behind winner Jack Nicklaus. Soon he was winning mid-level European tournaments. Victorious over American favorite Palmer at the Lancôme Trophy competition in Paris, Ballesteros gave the crowd a taste of his self-confidence in coming from behind: According to a reporter for the London Telegraph, he told the crowd at the ninth tee, “My heart tells me that the time has come” and then proceeded to hit birdies (score one under par) on the next five holes.
Although Ballesteros did military service in Spain's air force in 1977 and 1978, he was still able to compete in and win the Japanese, French, and Swiss Open tournaments. When he returned to golf full time, he quickly established himself as one of the top players in the game. He won the Swiss, Kenyan, Japanese, German, and Scandinavian Open tournaments and took home his first U.S. championship at North Carolina's Greater Greensboro Open. Ballesteros was popular with American golf fans, but he faced resentment from players who viewed him as an interloper and an unwelcome competitor for U.S. prize money.
Anti-European sentiment did not stop Ballesteros from winning the prestigious Masters Tournament in 1980. There he was not only victorious, he crushed the competition, surging to a ten-stroke lead with nine holes to go and eclipsing a tournament record set by Nicklaus. Ballesteros thus became the first European, the second non-American, and the youngest player ever to win the championship. The last record stood until Tiger Woods's victory in 1997, a fact that is not the only thing the two athletes had in common. Indeed, during the early 1980s Ballesteros had elements of the same image Woods would later forge: he was charismatic, brilliantly talented, and seemed able to deliver oncourse heroics at will. He won the Masters again in 1983 and barely missed a third win in 1986 after a 15th-green shot landed in a pond.
Ballesteros won his first British Open in 1979 at the difficult Royal Lytham & St. Anne's course, earning the moniker of “parking lot champion” after a bad slice landed in a parking area adjacent to the course. Even with that mishap—Ballesteros recovered with a superb shot back to the fairway—he was the only player in the field to score under par. Especially as his list of championships became longer and were augmented by similar stories, Ballesteros resented suggestions that his success was due to luck. He helped to vanquish such rumors by hitting masterful 18-foot putt for a birdie on the last hole of the 1984 British Open at Scotland's legendary St. Andrews course. As he pumped his fist in triumph, the image that was captured by a photographer and widely reprinted.
Ballesteros won a third British Open championship in 1988, but perhaps more visible to U.S. audiences was his role in reviving the biannual Ryder Cup team matches. These contests were played between teams from the United States and—until Ballesteros appeared—the British Isles. He and fellow Spaniard António Garrido became the first continental European players allowed to compete for the Ryder Cup, and the fortunes of the Europeans consequently began to improve. Ballesteros was bounced from the 1981 team after a financial dispute with organizers, but he returned in 1983 and brought the European team to within a single point of winning. In the next matches, in 1985, the European team won for the first time since 1957, and in 1987, playing in Muirfield Village, Ohio, they won again. Ballesteros believed that the Ryder Cup could serve as a vehicle for broadening golf's appeal in continental Europe and advocated that it be held at locations outside the United States and Great Britain. He achieved this goal when the 1997 Cup was held in Valderrama, Spain.
By the late 1990s, with Woods's star on the ascent, Ballesteros had become less popular among U.S. golf fans. He attributed this shift in sentiment to U.S. nationalism. “They [Americans] were used to watching Americans win,” he told Huggan. “One of the things they do in America is call themselves ‘world champions’ in sports where they are the only ones playing.” Ballesteros's image was becoming increasingly controversial in Europe as well; in 2000 he demanded an audit of European Tour accounts (an investigation that uncovered nothing), and in 2003 he argued with officials over accusations of slow play in two different tournaments, suffering a penalty in the second.
Ballesteros may have been troubled by the decline in his game in the 1990s, a decline exacerbated by persistent back problems. He won his last European Tour title in 1995, at the Spanish Open, and he was also a member of the Ryder Cup team for the last time that year. He continued to play until 2007 but was rarely a serious contender. In 1988, he had married Spanish socialite Carmen Botín, and the marriage produced two sons and a daughter before ending in divorce in 2004. Ballesteros's oldest son, Javier, served as his caddie at the 2006 British Open.
After collapsing at the Madrid airport in the fall of 2008, Ballesteros was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He underwent four surgeries to remove it and was treated with chemotherapy. In 2009 he was well enough to accept a lifetime achievement award from the British Broadcasting Corporation, but his health soon began to deteriorate. Ballesteros returned to his hometown of Pedreña, where he died of cancer on May 7, 2011.
Golf Digest, September 2000, p. 120.
Golf World, December 17, 1999, p 62.
Guardian (London, England), May 9, 2011, John Huggan, “Severiano Ballesteros,” pp. 8, 30.
BBC Sports online, http://www.bbc.com/sport/ (May 7, 2011), “Golf Great Seve Ballesteros Dies at 54.”
Economist online, http://www.economist.com/ (July 20, 2016), “Seve Ballesteros.”
Seve Ballesteros Foundation website, http://www.seveballesteros.com/ (July 20, 2016).
Telegraph online (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (May 8, 2011), “Seve Ballesteros.”
World Golf Hall of Fame website, http://www.worldgolfhalloffame.org/ (July 20, 2016), “Seve Ballesteros.”❑