I first remember seeing Seve Ballesteros on the cover of GolfWorld, contorted in his finish, straining for some advantage with his Elvis dark hair and the cover read, “Can This Teenager Win the Masters?” The year was 1976 and though he didn’t even play the Masters that April, he did announce his presence to the masses with a runner-up finish at the British Open, hitting, on the final hole, one of the most famous chip shots in golfing lore that was a harbinger of the stride-stopping talent that he possessed. Like Walter Hagen and Arnold Palmer before him, it wasn’t so much what he did but how he did it that captivated people.
While here in the U.S., we had a history of colorful champions, but in Europe the golf was more prosaic. Yes, they had great players like Henry Cotton and Tony Jacklin written in their history but, for the most part, Europeans played a straightforward game that may have won tournaments but rarely incited hysteria. That changed in 1976.
Too often analogies to other athletes and stars seem far-reaching when a sport loses one of its own but it is impossible to overstate Seve’s impact upon golf in Europe specifically, and around the globe peripherally. His animated style commanded your attention. He was a walking verb. He got into trouble spectacularly and out of it magically, with a big wide swing that caused his left shoulder to go way down and around, and his right shoulder seemed impossibly displaced from where it had been at address. His legs bowed, turned, squatted and exploded with an athleticism that was as alien to the game as anything the sport had ever seen.
Having started golf in 1975, I grew up watching Seve play. I would go to the backyard and watch my reflection in the window trying to make his backswing. On the range I would imitate his set up and wild music conductor finish and talk to the ball in Spanish, saying things I had heard him bark when he was burning up the screen winning tournaments. I tried to learn his short game and recognized immediately in others who were copying him as well.
Colin Montgomerie held his finish when he putted just as Seve did, where his hands where somewhat down and in and the putter was out, extending down the line. My colleague Frank Nobilo also did this. I played the Japan Tour in 1989 trying to swing like Seve from start to finish. As crazy as it sounds that someone who played golf for a living would abandon what they did to copy someone else, that was Seve’s effect on people who saw him play.
Seve won two Masters and three British Opens but of course he wanted more, he wanted to go down as one of the greatest of all time and to him that meant also winning the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. His was not the style of game that was rewarded in those events. At that time, artists didn’t win the U.S. Open, accountants did, and Seve was an artist.
Just as Ivan Lendl had done in tennis when he decided to change his game to try to win the one major that had alluded him (Wimbledon) and then lost his edge, so, too, did Seve when he sought to find control. Slowly his skills eroded to the extent that he couldn’t find his way back. Before time had robbed him of his abilities, Seve forgot what made him a champion. His peers never forgot though and until he officially retired, everywhere he went players followed him like pilot fish, trying to sponge what they could from his towering genius.
It’s been almost 20 years since Seve was a factor in a major championship but with his passing I am reminded of the adage that when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.