There never will be another like Severiano Ballesteros.
Since he first burst upon the worldwide scene as a 19-year-old at the 1976 British Open, where he finished second, the man known to all by one name – Seve – captivated golf fans of all ages and nationalities with his talent, his imagination, his competitiveness, his passion and his swagger, for the next two decades.
His ability to make birdies from parking lots and other uncharted territories was the stuff of legend. His skill at improvising any shot that he needed was uncanny, a major reason why he won 87 tournaments all over the world.
He won the 1980 Masters, becoming the first European and the youngest player at that time to win the green jacket. That helped set off a golf boom in Europe, a surge that continues to this day with the majority of the current top 10 players in the world hailing from that continent.
In all, he won five majors – the Masters in 1980 and 1983 and the British Open in 1979, 1984 and 1988. He had 13 other top-10 finishes in majors, although none after the 1991 British Open.
His charisma and flair provided the spark that made the Ryder Cup the dazzling spectacle it is today. He played on eight Ryder Cup teams and Europe walked away with the Cup five times – four wins and a tie that enabled the continent to keep the Cup.
Ballesteros played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He felt at times that he did not get the recognition he deserved on this side of the pond. He argued with then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who ruled he needed to play in a minimum amount of tournaments in order to compete on the U.S. tour.
Some in the media were rather prickly toward Ballesteros. His favorite expression at a news conference, when he felt a question was not one worthy of answering, was: “I’m sorry, but my English is not so good.”
One of my favorite Ballesteros moments came at the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C. Playing with his protégé, countryman Jose Maria Olazabal, Ballesteros felt his opponents, Paul Azinger and Chip Beck, violated the one-ball rule in foursome (alternate-shot matches) by switching to a different compression ball.
The dispute lingered after the Ryder Cup when Ballesteros called Azinger “a liar” for the American’s explanation of what happened. Azinger claimed Ballesteros was engaging in gamesmanship and actually coughed before a shot by his opponent.
The two eventually made amends. In a statement released Saturday by ESPN, Azinger said, “Even though we had some tense moments, we respected each other and our differences were resolved after the ’91 Ryder Cup. He was one of the first players to call me when I got sick (with lymphoma) in ’93. … He was one of the most talented and flamboyant players ever to play the game.”
Sir Nick Faldo, a long-time Ryder Cup teammate who nearly broke up on Saturday’s CBS telecast, called Ballesteros “Cirque du Soleil.”
“For golf, he was the greatest show on earth,” Faldo said. “I was a fan, and so fortunate I had a front-row seat.”
Sadly, the show ended far too early. A bad back forced him to cut back his schedule later in his career. He didn’t make a cut in a major after 2000, when he was just 43 years old. After he shot 86-80 in his final Masters in 2007, and entered one tournament on the Champions Tour, Ballesteros retired from competition before the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.
In October 2008, he collapsed at the Madrid Airport and he was found to have had a malignant brain tumor. There was hope he would have recovered enough to come to St. Andrews for the 150th anniversary of the British Open last year but was too weak to travel.
At this year’s Masters, defending champion Phil Mickelson honored Ballesteros with a menu of Spanish dishes, and Olazabal gave a speech that was alternately funny and poignant.
No, we weren’t going to see him play any more, not watch him display the fearless shotmaking from impossible places. But he went much too soon, at age 54, and the golf world is a much sadder place today.