The problem with writing about legends, true legends, is that often their feats don’t fit into the prescribed length of feature. That’s certainly true of Seve Ballesteros, who is currently recuperating from two bouts of surgery after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
I’ve penned two recent columns on the man who was European golf from the moment he burst on the scene as a 19-year-old runner-up to Johnny Miller in the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale until 1997 when he capped his career by leading Europe to victory in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, Spain. Each time I’ve finished writing I’ve felt there was more to be said.
So here are some Seve anecdotes to help give you a better idea of what makes Seve Ballesteros a true legend in the royal & ancient game.
And yes, there’s still more, much more, I could have written.
The shot heard 'round the world:
1976 Open Championship, Royal Birkdale, 72nd hole:
Seve began the final round of the 1976 Open with a two-shot lead, but lost the championship when all he could manage was a closing 74 to champion Johnny Miller’s 66. One shot stood out from those 74 strokes.
Birkdale’s 18th measured 513 yards in 1976, and played as a par-5. Needing a birdie to tie Jack Nicklaus for second, Seve looked to have blown it when his approach finished left of the left-hand greenside bunkers with the pin just over the bunkers.
The only option seemed a chip over the bunkers and hope for a 15-20 foot birdie putt. Seve saw a different route.
A thin path about a yard wide snaked its way between the bunkers on a direct route to the flag. It was a high risk shot, but Seve went for it anyway. He selected his 9-iron and hit a bump and run along the narrow strip of turf. The ball ended up 4 feet away and Seve got his birdie.
Four thousand miles away in Texas, an injured Lee Trevino whooped with delight. Legendary teacher John Jacobs looked on stunned. “That shot alone convinced me that Seve was a genius,” Jacobs said. “There wasn’t another man in the field who would have attempted it.”
The Car Park Champion
1979 Open Championship, Royal Lytham & St Annes:
Seve’s first major win came in the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham. He was dubbed the “Car Park Champion” after he hit his tee shot into a car park to the right of the 16th hole in the final round. He was given relief from under a car, then hit a wedge onto the green and holed out for birdie.
It wasn’t the first time Seve had driven wildly in that championship. “I don’t care what anyone says, Seve had no idea where the ball was going off the tee that week,” Ken Brown still maintains to this day.
“I cannot understand how anyone can drive as badly as that and still win an Open Championship,” said Hale Irwin, who played with Seve in the final round.
That was Seve. He could hit it in places and make par or birdie when lesser mortals would make bogeys or double bogeys.
Fuzzy gets fried:
1983 Ryder Cup, PGA National:
Seve drew Fuzzy Zoeller in the final singles session. He would have lost the match if not for another audacious stroke.
All square on the 18th, Seve hit a wild hook off the tee. He found the ball in the rough but could only advance it 20 yards into a bunker.
With some 250 yards to the green and the ball on an upslope, it looked as though Seve was going to lose the hole.
Commentating for ABC TV, Ed Sneed said: “I think he’s just going to take a 6- or 7-iron and hit out.”
Instead, Seve pulled 3-wood. The late Dai Davies, longtime correspondent for The Guardian, penned the best description of the situation.
“The ball was halfway up the face of the bunker, and would obviously have to be knocked out with a short iron,” Davies wrote. “Seve took his stance and it dawned that he was actually going to play the shot with a 3-wood. It seemed suicidal, a total waste of time.
“He swung, he hit, he gave the ball that incredible Seve stare and it flew miles and miles, right to the fringe of the green. It was an impossible shot, and it was greeted firstly with a stunned silence, and then by incredulous laughter that greets something that is outwith the experience of the watcher. It was, in the literal sense of the word, fantastic.”
That shot earned Seve a halve against Zoeller.
18th hole Crans-sur-Sierre, Crans Montana, Switzerland, 1993:
A plaque on the 18th commemorates one of Seve’s greatest shots ever. You have to stand at the plaque to have any idea of just how impossible a shot Seve played. We could spend the rest of our lives with endless balls and never come close to replicating Seve’s feat.
In the final round of the 1993 European Masters, Seve arrived on the 18th tee with a chance to win the tournament. That chance looked dead when he carved his tee shot right off the tee. It kicked hard down the mountainside and came to rest five feet away from a brick wall between him and the flag 135 yards away.
To make the situation worse, branches from a tree hung over the wall. Caddie Billy Foster urged Seve to chip the ball back to the fairway. Seve was having none of that. He saw a shot others couldn’t see.
The Maestro opened the face of his sand wedge, and swung as hard as he could. The ball cleared the wall, made it under the branches and landed 120 yards away just off the green.
Seve then chipped in for an impossible birdie. He didn’t win, finishing one stroke adrift of Lane, but the shot overshadowed the tournament. Afterward, a scratch amateur tried to replicate the shot. He couldn’t.
The Masters, 4th hole:
Nowadays we expect players to hit miraculous flop shots. The 60 and 64-degree wedges have turned ordinary professionals into seeming magicians. Seve could hit such shots with conventional wedges, such as the par he made at the Masters one year.
Seve was playing with Ray Floyd when he short-sided himself at the par-3 4th hole. Seve had to hit a pitch shot over the greenside bunker to a tight pin with the green sloping away. Mere mortals would have settled for a 30-foot par putt. Not Seve.
Ballesteros hit the ball straight up in the air, the ball pitched near the pin and came to a screeching halt two feet away.
“He does that sort of thing all the time,” an unfazed Floyd said afterwards. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s luck.”
Near the end of the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” one character says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
With Seve Ballesteros, fact and legend are interchangeable.