Five-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member Seve Ballesteros, known best for his fiery competitiveness, charismatic personality and swashbuckling style of play, died May 7 at the age of 54 due to complications from brain cancer. He was at his residence in the northern Spanish town of Pedrena with family members that included sons Baldomero and Miguel and his daughter Carmen.
The winner of 87 worldwide titles (the first coming at 19 in the 1976 Dutch Open and the last 19 years later at the Spanish Open), Ballesteros was first diagnosed with brain cancer in October 2008 after collapsing at Madrid’s Barajas airport. Surgeons performed four operations when a malignant tumor the size of two golf balls was discovered. Specialists removed most of the tumor, but a second operation was required two days later when Ballesteros suffered brain swelling.
“He’s fought more than anyone I’ve seen before,” family friend Miguel Angel Revilla told the Daily and Sunday Express.
Said George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, on the tour’s website: “This is such a very sad day for all who love golf.” Ballesteros won a record 50 times on the European Tour.
Despite chemotherapy and improved health early on, Ballesteros’ condition regressed in recent months and the usually cheerful, outgoing Spaniard had not been seen in public since March of last year. Ballesteros was unable to attend this year’s Masters Tournament, where defending champion Phil Mickelson honored the three-time Green Jacket winner with a special menu featuring Spanish cuisine.
“All of the past champions are really thinking about Seve,” said Mickelson after the traditional Tuesday night dinner at Augusta National Golf Club that is reserved for Masters champions. “Honoring Seve is easy and no big deal. I just want him to know we all wish he was here and we are thinking about him.”
The former World No. 1 was one of sport’s leading figures from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. He eventually became to European golf what Arnold Palmer was to American golf.
A member of a gifted golfing family – his uncle Ramon Sota was a four-time Spanish professional champion and finished sixth at the 1965 Masters, brothers Vicente and Baldomero and nephew Raul are golf pros and his older brother, Manuel, finished among the top 100 on the European Tour’s Order of Merit from 1972-83 and later became his manager – Ballesteros burst onto the scene in 1976 as a 19-year-old, finishing second at the British Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
Three years later, he won his first British Open and major title at Royal Lytham and St. Annes with a closing 70 that included a Seve-type birdie at the 16th hole where he hit his tee shot into a car park. At the time, the victory at age 22 made him the youngest champion of the British Open in the 20th century and the first golfer from continental Europe to win a major since Frenchmen Arnaud Massy at the 1907 British Open.
Then in 1980, he claimed the first of his two Masters titles, becoming the first European to ever don the Green Jacket and, at the time, the youngest champion, at 23 years old. That mark was later broken by Tiger Woods in 1997.
“I don’t think it’s arguable that Seve had the best hands of anyone who ever played,” former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger told the Palm Beach Post.
Although Ballesteros never won a U.S. Open, he did post three top-five finishes, including a third at the 1987 championship at The Olympic Club. In all, he made 18 U.S. Open appearances, the last coming at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in 1995.
He also led the Official World Golf Rankings for a total of 61 weeks from 1986 to 1989.
Ballesteros’ go-for-broke style made him an instant favorite among fans and his deft short game and ability to escape from difficult and adverse situations made him a tough match-play competitor. He won the World Match Play five times, equaling Gary Player’s record, and his tenacity in the biennial Ryder Cup Matches helped transcend Europe into a formidable foe for the United States, which dominated the competition until the late 1970s. In 37 matches against the U.S., Ballesteros registered a remarkable 22½ points, many coming with fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal as his partner. The two players formed one of the most successful partnerships in the competition’s history, posting 11 wins and two halved matches out of 15 pairs matches. Ballesteros helped Europe win the Cup in 1985 and retain it in 1987 and 1989. He was also a member of Europe’s victorious team in 1995.
Jack Nicklaus once described Ballesteros’ 245-yard bunker shot on the 18th hole at PGA National during the 1983 Ryder Cup as “the finest shot I’ve ever seen.”
Ballesteros eschewed the safe play, instead hitting a persimmon 3-wood with a head the size of a putter to within 18 feet of the hole. Two putts later, he had defeated future U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller, but Europe lost a close one-point decision. Nevertheless, Ballesteros and Europe had fired a salvo that America’s dominance in the event was coming to an end.
“He was probably the most passionate Ryder Cup player that we’ve ever had,” Nicklaus said recently to the Palm Beach Post. “He was Europe’s emotional and spiritual leader, the heart and soul of their team. The Ryder Cup was something that was very, very special to Seve.”
That same personality and competitive fire showed even more when he successfully captained Europe to victory at the 1997 Matches at Valderrama Golf Club in Spain, the first time the competition was conducted in continental Europe.
Ballesteros also had a sense of humor, especially with the press. He once described a four-putt green with the following: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.”
Back problems eventually forced Ballesteros to retire from professional golf in 2007. He was briefly hospitalized over concerns about his heart, but was discharged the same day when given a clean bill of health.
A year after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Ballesteros was instrumental in creating the Seve Trophy in 2000, a team competition similar to the Ryder Cup, pitting a team from Great Britain and Ireland against one from continental Europe. That same year, Golf Digest ranked him as the 16th greatest golfer of all time and the top player from continental Europe.
Ballesteros was an idol, inspiration and mentor for a generation of future Spanish golf stars, especially Olazabal, who followed his friend in winning a pair of Masters titles, and Sergio Garcia, the 1998 British Amateur champion who has had a couple of near-misses in major championships. Miguel Angel Jimenez has also been a stalwart in Ryder Cup play
"Seve was my idol," said Sergio Garcia. "He was golf. He meant so much to Spain, to the Ryder Cup, to golf everywhere. He was fighter. It's just sad."
Italian 18-year-old Maneo Manessaro, already a two-time winner on the European Tour and, at 16, the youngest to win the British Amateur, also called Ballesteros his idol.
Ballesteros’ influence on Spanish athletes reached beyond the golf world.
“Seve is one of this country’s great sportsmen,” World No. 1 tennis star and fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal told the Express. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet him and play golf with him.”
Olazabal met with Ballesteros in the past week and through his manager, saw how his friend’s condition has severely deteriorated.
“Seve’s physical condition was not good when Jose Maria went to see him,” said Sergio Gomez, Olazabal’s manager, “but they talked about golf and everything.”
David Shefter is the USGA’s senior staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com.