Seve Ballesteros first showed off his magic to a worldwide audience as a 19-year-old at the British Open, playing with touch and imagination, bouncing shots between bunkers and finishing second to Johnny Miller.
Five years later, Ballesteros gave Miller another lasting impression.
It was 1981, the inaugural Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa, with a $500,000 first prize that dwarfed anything else in the world. The two were tied after regulation and went into a sudden-death playoff.
“The first extra hole, I take it right over the flag to about six feet,” Miller recalled during a phone interview Saturday from his ranch in Utah. “He takes out a 6-iron and takes it over the water and it hangs on the lip.”
The playoff went nine holes before Ballesteros blinked with a three-putt bogey. Miller said the Spaniard’s brother told him later that Ballesteros cried for the next two hours.
“You could see how much the guy cared about winning,” Miller said, hours after learning that his rival and five-time major champion had died at age 54 from a cancerous brain tumor.
“That’s the reason he was so attractive to watch,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit like Tiger. He just wanted it so bad. He never did anything lackadaisical.”
Jack Nicklaus said Ballesteros’ enthusiasm was unlike that of any other player, and his imagination also was without comparison.
“I have watched him play 1-irons out of greenside bunkers when just fooling around,” Nicklaus said. “He could do anything with a golf club and a golf ball.”
Hale Irwin played with Ballesteros in the final round of the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham, famous for Ballesteros making birdie from the parking lot. Irwin said the Spaniard hit three fairways in the final round and still won his first major.
“It wasn’t because he was lucky,” Irwin said. “It was because he created some shots that were unbelievable. As sad as I was, I look back and scratch my head and say, ‘How does he do it?’ It wasn’t an accident or lucky. It was a skill factor he had.”
The skill was undeniable.
Ballesteros once said he would rank himself among the top 15 players of all time. Among Europeans, Harry Vardon and Nick Faldo have won more majors, and Bernhard Langer has played in more Ryder Cups.
But a more important figure in European golf?
Padraig Harrington suggested that an image of Ballesteros – perhaps his celebration upon winning at St. Andrews in 1984 – become the logo of the European Tour. Ernie Els referred to him as an iconic figure, the flag bearer for Europe.
“He opened up so many doors for Europe’s players by winning all over the world, and particularly in America,” the South African said. “The European Tour would not be what it is today without him.”
The philosophy of Ballesteros might best be explained through what some consider the greatest shot he ever hit, the top of a long list.
His tee shot had landed near a swimming pool. He was blocked by a 7-foot wall in front of him, trees everywhere. His caddie, Billy Foster, suggested he pitch to the fairway. Ballesteros saw a tiny gap – no one else would have noticed it – opened the blade of his pitching wedge and went over the trees, ending up just short of the green. Then he chipped in for birdie.
“I like to keep going forward,” Ballesteros said.
His shotmaking skill is legendary. He learned to play using the rusted head of a 3-iron, that he attached to whatever sticks he could find. He used pebbles on the beach near his home in Pedrena as golf balls, and from such humble beginnings learned to create.
“He saw shots no one else could see,” swing coach Butch Harmon said.
Before he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999, Ballesteros told of his son, Javier, starting to play. He sent the boy out to their par-3 course with only an 8-iron.
“What happens is he goes over there and sees the other children with a full bag,” Ballesteros said. “And he always says to his friends, ‘Why do you carry a full bag?’ And the others say, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to be.’ And Javier says, ‘No, no. My father says it’s supposed to be playing with only one club.’
“It’s simple and clear,” he added. “One club. You have to develop your imagination.”
The legacy of Ballesteros goes beyond his incredible shots, however.
It was the Spaniard who pushed to bring continental Europe into the Ryder Cup, and he made his teammates believe it was the most important event of the year. He was part of the “Fab Five” in Europe that included Langer, Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Ballesteros was the first of that bunch to win a major, and the first to win the Masters.
“He was the backbone of the European Tour for so long,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. “Seve was their Arnold Palmer. We embellish the truth about things a lot of times, but it is the absolute truth.”
Charisma is hard to define, but there’s a reason Ballesteros is said to have had equal impact on Europe as Palmer did in America. Peter Alliss, the great British broadcaster, said that when Ballesteros was in a good mood, “the world smiled with him.”
“He could change the weather with his face,” David Feherty said.
Ballesteros had his battles with players and tours on both sides of the Atlantic. He missed the 1981 Ryder Cup during a dispute with Europe over appearance money, and he once was fined by his tour for refusing to accept a one-stroke penalty for slow play and signing for the lower score. He challenged the U.S. tour over the number of tournaments they demanded he play.
And then there was the Ryder Cup.
Paul Azinger mixed it up with Ballesteros more than once, calling him the “King of Gamesmanship,” to which Ballesteros once replied that the Americans had “11 nice guys and Paul Azinger.” They settled their difference in Jamaica one year, a conversation that ended with Ballesteros telling Azinger, “We make this like toilet water. We flush.”
Asked for his memories Saturday, Azinger called him an “encourager.”
“Look at the way he treated his partners at the Ryder Cup,” Azinger said. “There was always a pat on the back. He could bring the most out of his partners. I played with him in 1988 at Brookline and had a chance to win there. Seve was encouraging me the last few holes because he could no longer win. That was his nature. He would say, ‘You need to birdie the next hole. You can do this.’ I loved him.
“Anyone who was around Seve learned from Seve,” Azinger said. “And you can’t say that about everyone.”
The shotmaking. The charisma. The adulation from galleries. The legacy he left behind.
“Seve had it all,” Miller said.