Log on to the official website of Severiano Ballesteros and you’ll find a revealing passage about his 1980 Masters victory. It is prefaced with a bit of well-deserved preening: Seve was 10 shots clear of the field with nine holes to play, he clocked up an eagle and 23 birdies during the four rounds and (his birdie total matching his age) he became, at 23, the first European and the youngest player ever to wear the green jacket. It was, the authorized chronicle tells us, an incredible success; in Seve’s Spanish hometown, the churchbells “rang out in joy.”
Then, a sour note. His attempt to mount a Grand Slam “petered out” two months later when he was disqualified from the U.S. Open for missing his tee time.
“This,” we are told, “was his first great disappointment.”
It is an odd admission, and a telling one. Within it one can glimpse a dire prophecy beginning to come true. The cursed nature of his career and life apparently begins then and there, in the first fading of Masters glory. Before Ballesteros won his second green jacket in 1983, the clash of light and dark in his personality—the same mix of characteristics that, in David Feherty’s words, make Seve the sunniest athlete imaginable at one moment and “Thor the Thunder God” the next—had flashed into view. Amid a string of tour victories and worldwide acclaim, he resigned from the European Tour in a row over appearance money and was spectacularly dropped from the Ryder Cup team, despite being Europe’s best player.
Over the years, Ballesteros has been at the heart of some of the most infamous grudge matches in the game’s history. He has maintained long-running feuds with caddies, fellow players, ex-managers, the Spanish government (for failing to promote golf) and former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman (for taking away his tour card). He threatened to lose interest in the Ryder Cup in order to get the event played in Spain and accused the owner of the eventual host course of bribery. Most recently, he’s crossed swords with the European Tour committee by refusing to accept a slow-play penalty.
“It was very sad because we didn’t want to fine the guy,” says former Ryder Cup captain and committee chairman Mark James.
“We said, ‘We are your friends.’ But he doesn’t seem to know who his friends are anymore. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who can go up to him and say, ‘Seve, you’re in the wrong here. Just say you’re sorry and let it go. You’re bang out of order.’”
The most insightful comment I ever came across while researching a biography of Ballesteros was from a source who told an American magazine writer, “All of his professional life, has been inspired to great deeds by his craving to stick it to someone. Go through his record: Here’s when he stuck it to the European Tour because they wouldn’t permit him to ask for appearance money. Here’s when he stuck it to the American pros for calling him lucky. Here’s when he stuck it to Deane Beman for not changing the qualification rules.”
To me, it’s no coincidence that Ballesteros has not won a major since 1988, the year when the time and mental energy taken up by score-settling began to overtake that devoted to celebrating the game. By 1995, when he last won a tournament, those negative motivations dominated him. Today, Ballesteros resembles no one so much as the despairing George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” standing on the steel bridge of life, battered by icy winds. Rich in record, wealthy in the way that only happens when one of Spain’s most famous sportsmen marries the heiress to one of the nation’s biggest banks (although even that union has recently crumbled), he seems incapable of seeing beyond the flooded ruins of his career, demanding instead: “Why me? What was it all for?”
And it is left to us to remind ourselves what golf—the Masters in particular—would have been without Seve.
The 1976 British Open, where he finished in a tie for second behind Johnny Miller, was the event that introduced Ballesteros to the world. But it was his 1979 Open win—a white-knuckle ride via the car-park at Royal Lytham’s 16th—that first launched him as a superstar, just 22 years old and already possessed of what Feherty, then a rookie, saw as “a feline grace. He prowled. He had absolutely everything. And he was beautiful.”
In a Europe crying out for a hero more dynamic than slow, sweet Sandy Lyle, introverted Nick Faldo or workaholic Bernhard Langer, the peasant farmer’s son from Pedrena with the heart-stopping smile and otherworldly golf game instantly became all things to all people. To the girls who swarmed round him, the young golfers who imitated his moves and the galleries who tried to keep pace with him, he was Elvis before Vegas; Palmer reinvented as a Latin movie star; a dashing matador in a cape, challenging all comers.
To Ben Crenshaw, he was the most exciting golfer in the world. “He stalked the golf course,” Crenshaw says. “He was almost regal in the way that he did it, because he played by pure instinct. And it was a wondrous thing to watch. Very, very formidable to play against.”
That Ballesteros had a rare array of gifts was obvious from the outset, but it was his imagination that made his play magical. He thought nothing of dribbling 4-irons through bunkers, willing 3-woods through tree limbs. Much was made of his wildness at Lytham and even Augusta, where the Americans incensed him with charges of being “lucky,” but Crenshaw recognized in him a kindred spirit, one who relished testing his artistry against the architecture. Far from living and dying on his short game, as many believed, he was a majestic long-iron player and a phenomenal, if errant, driver. With a persimmon club, he could propel the ball 300 yards through the air.
“He said, ‘I just hit it as far as I can and as close to the green as possible,’” remembers Faldo. “Rough or trees, it didn’t matter.”
Everyone who knew Ballesteros in those early years describes him as sunny and good-humored. Friends and rivals agree that, while he courted and even craved the heady fame that followed the first of his five majors, he yearned even more for the normal, youthful life that had been lost. At home, he clung hard to his roots in Pedrena. On tour, he stayed close to his Spanish friends. But as much as he tried to stay grounded, his conviction—some would say arrogant assumption—that certain privileges were a divine right if you were a champion escalated year after year.
In the wake of his starry progress, European golf exploded. For Faldo, Langer, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal, Ballesteros was the pathfinder. He was to U.S. majors what Roger Bannister had been to the four-minute mile, proving they were attainable. Once he’d done that, the rush was on to follow him, and his victories at Augusta triggered a period of virtual foreign domination at the Masters that endured until the rise of Tiger Woods in the late ’90s.
It was the Ryder Cup, though, where his influence was felt globally, in performances so intense that, at Kiawah Island in 1991, Paul Azinger anointed Seve the “king of gamesmanship.” (Despite that criticism, Azinger’s respect for his rival was such that he agreed to write the foreword to my Ballesteros biography six years later.)
Crenshaw has gone head-to-head with Ballesteros on numerous occasions and says he witnessed no hi-jinks whatever. But other players have accused him of practice-putting in their field of vision, walking off the tee box while they’re in mid-swing, or using the force of his personality to bend the will of rules officials. John Paramor, chief referee on the European Tour and a recipient of the Ballesteros glower many a time, believes that while the Spaniard is not above using the rules to his advantage, it has more to do with psyching out opponents than gamesmanship.
“He’s a supreme competitor,” Paramor says. “He never, ever wants to believe he’s wrong.”
As Ballesteros’ assistant at Valderrama in ’97, the year he captained the Ryder Cup team, James got close enough to that competitive fire to suffer radiation burns.
“‘Devious’ is a bit strong, but he’s an incredibly cunning person,” says James. “If he’s playing foursomes he’ll have so many reasons why one person should play odds and the other evens or what ball they should be playing or how they should play the course. He thinks long and hard and passionately about every aspect of what he’s doing.”
It is these qualities that have made Ballesteros such a force at the Ryder Cup, but it is his softer side that has made him Europe’s inspirational leader. Feherty, one of five rookies on the 1991 side, recalls Ballesteros administering neck rubs in the team trailer. “I remember feeling bigger, feeling like I occupied more space. I thought, I wonder why that is? But it was that he made himself small for us. He made himself human. He allowed himself to be vulnerable.”
But no matter how high he rose into the stratosphere in Europe, in the U.S. Ballesteros was always an ambiguity. He was too thorny, too Latin, too prone to spitting thunderbolts. Something always got lost in the translation.
A decade after Ballesteros had his PGA Tour card snatched away by Beman for failing to play the 15-event minimum, because he was too proud and too private to say that his father was dying, Golfweb’s Dan King summed up Severiano’s career thusly: “In Britain, Japan and Spain, Ballesteros is seen as one of the all-time greatest golfers. In America he is often regarded as a bull-headed egotist with visions of grandeur.”
To many who witnessed the rise of Ballesteros on the global stage, things could easily have turned out for the better.
“I think there’s a regret here,” Feherty observes. “Americans should have loved him. Any kind of character or somebody out of the ordinary, with that kind of talent, is just going to make a fortune here if they can only exploit it. But he never did. They never got to see the best of him. The resentment that he had showed up in his game.”
Holding a two-stroke lead on the final day of the 1986 Masters, Ballesteros arrived at his second shot on Augusta’s 15th hole seemingly cloaked in invincibility. Elsewhere Jack Nicklaus had begun to charge, but Ballesteros was convinced that a third green coat was his destino. A month earlier, he had promised his father on his deathbed he would win the Masters in his honor. Now, standing over a 4-iron with a breeze ruffling his hair, indecision crept into his heart. Could it be a 5? He hesitated and hit the ball into the water.
“That was classic nerves,” Faldo says. “When the nerves hit the shoulders, the shoulders stop moving. He didn’t get through it, he hit it fat.” It was one shot and one moment, but the scarring, Faldo believes, was permanent. “It’s amazing how one shot can wreck your self-belief.”
On paper, Ballesteros’ career continued uninterrupted. He lost the ’87 Masters (along with Greg Norman) in a playoff with Larry Mize, but bounced back in ’88 with a dazzling victory over Nick Price in the British Open. But nothing could arrest the drip, drip, drip of his confidence or the creeping onset of a slump that would soon seem bottomless.
The 1991 season was to be Seve’s last great campaign. After unexpectedly approaching David Leadbetter at the Dunlop Open in Japan in late April, he went on to top the European money list a record sixth time and win six titles in 11 months, thanks to a shorter, wider backswing and an improved posture that alleviated the agony in his back. Then, a typical Ballesteros twist: Two weeks after visiting Leadbetter at Lake Nona in 1992 and declaring himself extremely happy, Ballesteros gave him the cold shoulder on the practice range at Augusta. It transpired that his brother and sometime coach Manuel had told him that his swing was too mechanical. Two days before the tournament began, Seve was hitting it sideways.
“Needless to say,” recalls Leadbetter, “he missed the cut and shot a million. He came up to me in Japan two weeks later and said, ‘David, I just want to thank you for last year. I know I play well but that’s too mechanical. I have to be natural.’”
Thus Ballesteros began the long, slow tumble to his present 1,106th (at this writing) in the world rankings. Along the way he has visited every quack and guru around in a bid to save his game, even enlisting the aid of Mac O’Grady, with whom he made a bizarre pilgrimage into the desert to bury old memories. Nothing has helped. The last time he made the cut at Augusta was 1996, and he was sidelined for most of 2004 due to crippling back pain. Over the past decade there have been plenty of exquisite moments—mostly during the Ryder Cup—but there have been whole years of flailing clubs in tall rough, black scowls and furrowed brows.
Most golfers in Ballesteros’ position are subject to the laws of natural selection. Either they lose their exemptions and are booted off the tour or, in the case of major champions like Ian Baker-Finch, they gut it out for as long as they can before retiring to take up a less-stressful pursuit such as TV broadcasting. But Ballesteros has chosen to continue, for reasons his peers find impossible to comprehend.
“He’s madder than a box of pit bulls,” is Feherty’s blunt opinion. “He’s completely lost his mind. It’s just a shame that he has kept playing. Why does he torture himself like that?”
To Mark James the specter is equally confounding. “It’s inconceivable that someone who’s won five majors and played so well for so long can suddenly play so badly for 10 years,” says James. “It’s almost unique.”
Leadbetter at least partially blames Ballesteros’ contentious nature. “He seems to be very bitter in many ways—all of these fights and what have you. It’s totally unnecessary. He’s got a lot of things to be grateful for. It comes down to what’s going to make you happy. If it’s only going to make you happy to make birdies every hole, you’re in for a sad life, aren’t you?”
In the midst of his battle to take the Ryder Cup to Spain, Ballesteros observed, “When a tree falls down, a lot of people want to take a cut out of it. My feeling is that this is what is happening. I have only one way to go and that’s to reach the top again. Then I’ll have my power back.”
Like his website remark about great disappointments, it was a statement that spoke volumes, carrying as it did the implication that if his name wasn’t at the top of the leaderboard, he would not be afforded the respect he deserves as the man who rescued the Ryder Cup and put European golf on the map. As with Frank Capra’s altruistic hero George Bailey, who saved his brother from drowning and performed countless deeds for the good of his fellow citizens, one gets the feeling that, at the core of Ballesteros’ dark resentment, is the belief that, after working tirelessly to help others to glory, his own glory has been underrated or gone unfulfilled.
Despite his recent divorce, despite his angry insistence that the world is conspiring against him, despite all the distractions—Ballesteros still has charisma, still has magic, still has the power to seduce an audience. He is the archetypal flawed genius, the kind we fall in love with. “There are many good players but they are not champions in their hearts,” Seve once told me. “To be a champion it has to be inside. Some people, they have that naturally, and other people they don’t. That’s why they don’t become champions.”
It’s natural for any public figure who hears vocal criticism to feel that their truest, best self remains invisible to the public, Ballesteros being no exception. Meanwhile, there is a lengthy list of athletes and performers whose characters have come across in ways the public finds understandable and at least reasonably admirable. Because they enjoy widespread acceptance, these celebrities have an easier time of it when their careers and performances falter. In the end, no matter how embraced or how embattled you are, the historical record of accomplishments probably matters most.
“One thing’s for sure, they’re never going to be able to take his record away,” says Leadbetter. “People can say what they like, but he’s been there and done it.”
Back muscles willing, 2005 will, Ballesteros insists, be the year he becomes a champion again at the Masters. Come April, he’ll be prowling Bobby Jones’ emerald fairways in a quest for a victory only he believes he can attain, chained to Augusta by a promise to a dying man, fighting to restore his place in the game he loves more than life.