Courageous Ballesteros Leaves Lasting Impact
It had been an uncommonly dry spring and summer on the British Isles 27 years ago. The rough on the Old Course at St. Andrews was short and sparse compared to the normally rain drenched, deep tangle of vegetation that maintained a vice-like grip on golf balls.
So when Seve Ballesteros teed up on the dogleg right par-4 17th hole tied for the lead with Tom Watson in the final round of the 1984 British Open, he purposely aimed straight down the fairway in order to hit his ball into that year’s thin and less fearsome rough.
Watson, playing one hole back of Seve, did what the majority of pros do on that famous Road Hole, considered the most difficult par-4 in any of the four majors. He hit to the corner of the dogleg, 460-yard hole where the hopes of many a golfer have died in the form of a bogey or much worse, just as Watson’s hopes for a record-tying sixth British Open title died there that day.
Ballesteros knew exactly what he was up to. Although he had bogeyed the Road Hole in each of the first three rounds of that British Open when playing the fairway route, the Spaniard drove into the rough this time as his way to set up a 6-iron second shot he needed to reach the green some 200 yards away.
He executed his plan to perfection, easily hitting the ball free of the thin rough and bouncing the approach shot in front of that green. His ball took a couple of hops before settling down 30 feet right of the hole. Two putts gave Seve a crucial par 4 that Watson could not match because his 2-iron shot from the fairway went skipping over the green, over the road that gives the hole its name and up against the ancient stone wall bordering the course.
Watson was finishing off a disappointing bogey 5 as Ballesteros birdied No. 18 to win the British Open for the second time in his young career.
That 6-iron to victory was just one of the many strong, winning rescue shots Seve Ballesteros made in his courageous life that tragically ended all too soon eight days ago when the great Spanish golfer lost his three-year battle with a malignant brain tumor. He was only 54.
Seve’s first of five major victories came in the 1979 British Open at age 22 when his wedge shot heard ’round the world from a car park alongside the 16th fairway during the final round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England converted disaster into birdie and victory. That was his most famous “trouble” shot in a career filled with spectacular game savers from parking lots, wrong fairways, deep rough and hazards, those places where timorous golfers refuse to swing.
With memorable recovery and saving shots in almost every round, Seve won the British Open in 1979, 1984 and 1988 and the Masters in 1980 and 1983.
Barry Lane, an English golf pro, remembered his favorite Seve miracle shot that was executed at the 18th hole of the Swiss Open at Crans-sur-Sierre in 1993. The Spaniard, in the twilight of his career, hit a ball from deep rough under a low hanging tree and sent his ball up over an 8-foot high stone wall about 140 yards to a spot 20 feet off the green. From there Seve chipped into the hole for a birdie.
Lane birdied the 17th hole to beat Ballesteros by a shot.
After the round, Lane said, “Seve came to me and said, ‘Barry, you were lucky on 17, no?’ I said, ‘Well, what about you at 18?’
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘But that’s not a problem for me.’”
Lane said, “We all have imagination and we all know what we’d like to do with the ball. But he was the one guy who could execute it almost every time and that’s what made him so special.”
Seve Ballesteros, who received many honors in his life, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999. Shortly after that he was named the greatest European golfer of the 20th century. That was quite an achievement since he beat out such notables as Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Willie Anderson, the British golf heroes of a century ago, plus Sir Henry Cotton of the 1930s and 1940s.
Seve gave so much to the world of golf and European golf in particular. More importantly than any of those amazing shots Seve executed, was the manner by which this dynamic Spaniard urged generations of European golfers to heights they never imagined they could achieve. It is part of his legacy that European golfers once again are atop the world rankings, a position once held by Vardon, Ray, Anderson and Cotton.
This amazing golfer, who learned his artistry on the links by hitting a stone with a sawed-off 3-iron along the beach near his home of Santander in northern Spain, became the first European to win the Masters when he got the green jacket in 1980. He took his second Masters title in 1983 when he tore into the first four holes on Sunday with birdie, eagle, par, birdie to win by 4 shots.
But he had to finish with another classic Ballesteros flourish because his approach at the 18th hole went awry and his pitch came up short of the green. Leading by 4 shots and as if to say, “Enough already. Let’s get this over with”, Seve took a 9-iron and chipped the ball into the cup for a par-4, putting an end to it all.
I remember writing, “Seve couldn’t help himself. He was simply spectacular out of habit.”
While covering Seve Ballesteros through his five major victories and his four other triumphs on the American PGA Tour, I walked many a competitive round with him and saw him perform magical extractions from places where other humans would take an unplayable.
I walked numerous practice rounds with Seve and his friend, Mac O’Grady, as they would entertain crowds by trying every sort of difficult shot from places where they might land when the tournament got under way.
One of their favorite tricks during these laid back practice rounds was to face each other on a teeing ground and have the ambidextrous O’Grady hit a driver left handed as Seve drove a ball right handed. They attempted to have their golf balls collide at the apex of the flight. Amazingly, they came close at times.
Ballesteros and O’Grady had other traits in common. Each was a nonconformist who was in constant conflict with the American PGA Tour commissioner, Deane Beman. Seve kept trying to get the PGA Tour to lower its mandatory number of tournaments required for foreign golfers to be considered members of the American PGA Tour. He was temporarily suspended from our PGA Tour in the mid-1980s because he would not or could not play in the minimum of 15 American tournaments.
Seve also had his run-ins with European PGA Tour officials, mostly over his failure to receive promised appearance monies. Appearance money is not permitted on the American PGA Tour but is paid out regularly to the big — name golfers on some foreign tours.
O’Grady, who was a lusty contrarian, battled but never got the upper hand with Beman who seemed determined to continually discipline this persistent thorn in his side.
I enjoyed Seve and Mac in their fights against the stuffed shirts establishment. The three of us discussed these struggles over many a late dinner.
Seve had some success in dislodging a few of golf’s needless traditions that seemed anchored in concrete. Getting the Ryder Cup to be a contest between Europe and the United States instead of just USA vs. Great Britain and Ireland was a goal of Seve’s that was reached early in his career.
Despite all of his 87 professional victories around the world, including six on the American tour and a record 50 on the European PGA Tour, Seve’s most impressive mark on the game is what he did as a tenacious, driving competitor and team captain in Ryder Cup play.
Ballesteros, more than any other individual, turned this once boring biennial team match into the big international sports spectacular that it has become over the last three decades.
The Ryder Cup was a dull competition between the United States and a team of pros from Great Britain and Ireland with little appeal because the U.S. won 19 of the first 22 matches that began in 1927.
But ever since it became the United States vs. European golfers in 1979, the Europeans have won the cup nine times to seven for the Americans. But more impressively, after losing the first three USA — Europe matches, the Europeans have won nine of 13 matches.
Ballesteros, the man with fire in his belly and a single minded determination that exuded inspiration for his fellow Europeans, joined Britain’s Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam plus Germany’s Bernhard Langer in breathing a totally new life into the long moribund Ryder Cup so that it has become the most crowd-pleasing and thrilling event in the world of golf.
Now Seve is gone but well remembered.
Seve, que fueron los mejores. Dios te bendiga, mi amigo.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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