According to Spanish folklore, there once reigned a king so cruel and insecure that if any of his subjects ever were to grow taller than him, he would provide them a choice of how they would be lowered to a smaller stature: by having either their head or their legs removed. This is, strictly speaking, not an ideal binary. Then again, it’s always better to have options.
Severiano Ballesteros knew this both intrinsically and as a practical matter. Whether the challenges were brought on by the capricious nature of life or his own making, he always seemed to be conjuring ways to face them down. Like the battle with his wrecked back, which came at age 17 from beating a thousand balls into the frigid Spanish night in his hometown of Pedreña, trying to tame a small tournament he never needed to win. He won. And he was never right again. Like the “Seve Par”—a shockingly bad shot somehow leading to a miraculous 4 from the wilderness of the deep woods or an impossible bunker lie. It still feels as if his five majors might have been twice as many or none at all.
Golf can be a cruel and capricious monarch, but Seve always saw opportunities others couldn’t. Even in the 1980s, when the majority of the damage had already been done, but things were somehow still good—the shadowy years. A Masters win in ’83, followed by an Open Championship the next year and another most-unlikely Open in ’87. Even after he hung upside down every day for 20 minutes trying to salve the pain. Even after Nick Faldo, one of his fiercest rivals, admitted, “I knew from way back that his back was shot.”
In the years since his death in 2011, Seve has passed from Hall of Fame golfer to something akin to a Spanish Paul Bunyan. Other players may have stronger résumés, but the hardscrabble, hard-minded fifth son of a farm laborer has transcended the game and risen to his own pedestal—worthy of comparisons to great Spanish artists and deserving of his place in the folklore of his home country and the game he loved.
And it’s not only because of the wild Seve Pars easily searched on grainy YouTube videos. The following four shots did every bit as much to elevate his status—possibly even more.
Editor’s note: The narratives in this passage are based on the reporting in The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion, by Richard Gillis; Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius (The Updated Definitive Biography), by Robert Green; and Behind the Ryder Cup: The Players’ Stories, by Peter Burns with Ed Hodge.
The pulled 4-iron at the 15th
One week after his 29th birthday, and one month following the passing of his father, Seve seethed with a resentment that threatened to consume him. He disliked his treatment on the PGA Tour, where many players regarded him as an interloper. He recoiled from American competitors like Tom Kite and Curtis Strange, the latter of whom had yet to win a major and yet in certain U.S. quarters was considered Seve’s equal. By this point Seve was already a four-time major winner, including the 1980 and 1983 Masters. But the feeling would not dissipate. At times it felt a lot like hate.
Legendary Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie landed in theaters in 1972, a bitterly caustic and absurd satire of the idle rich that posited a world of privilege and process that had rendered an entire class of individuals so corrupt as to be barely recognizable as human. This, roughly, could be considered Seve’s view of American golf: self-important in the extreme, but neither nuanced nor elegant. How he relished embarrassing those rich kids at the Ryder Cup! And now, at the final round of the Masters, to beat their very best on their most-sainted track—again—was a mainline satisfaction too pure to be sold on the streets.
He eagles the 8th by holing a 40-yard pitch. He eagles the 13th after a magnificently struck 6-iron lands 5 feet from the pin.
Two clear on the leaderboard. A perfect drive on 15, within range of an easy two-putt birdie. Possibly one solid shot away from triumph. His playing partner is…Kite. Has Seve set the old resentments aside? There is an old Spanish expression: Los celos son malos consejeros. Jealousy isn’t worth the energy and time.
Seve’s desultory 4-iron stroke that barely makes it to the middle of Rae’s Creek is arguably the worst of his career. More so, it is his first crisis of confidence as a golfer. From this point forward he will always have to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously. He will feel the pressure of age.
He three-putts 17 and finishes fourth in the ’86 Masters, two behind Jack Nicklaus. Publicly, he takes a fatalist view: “I was destined not to win, and he was destined to finish his career with a great victory.” Whether he believes that summation is debatable. But the shot never leaves him. “I think that if I had hit the green instead of the water, I would have won maybe six Masters,” he later laments. “It burns me inside.”
1987 Ryder Cup
The chip-in from 40 feet on No.1
Two years prior, Seve helped humble the Americans at the Belfry, handing them their first loss since 1957. Now, at Jack’s place, the urgency and ache to do it again is pathological. Now he wants to humiliate them.
Tensions run high from the gate as Seve and his playing partner and countryman, José María Olazábal, are matched in fourball against none other than Strange and Kite.
To say there is bad blood is to woefully undersell it.
Trouble starts at the first hole. Seve scrapes his approach short and left, leaving maybe a 40-foot chip. His protégé, Olazábal, is on in regulation, 20 feet closer, above the hole. In Spanish, Seve tells his partner to go first. Olazábal misses, and Seve, again in Spanish, tells him to putt out. None of this is a breach of decorum, but the confused American players require clarification about what’s happening. Strange goes well beyond gamesmanship and asks, “Can you speak in Christian?”
Seve locks into his shot. By this point it’s well known that he feeds off of this brand of animosity. Confidence follows from rage, and rage follows from insult. It seems as if the memories are beginning to flood through him, from how he was treated as a teenage caddie at the Real Club de Golf de Pedreña, where he was nearly fired for taking an idle practice swing, to all of the slights—real and perceived—during his time in the U.S. Absolutely every last goddamn thing about Tom Kite.
When Seve’s chip goes in, Strange still has a putt left to halve. Seve, the king of European gamesmanship, turns to Olazábal and tells him, in English, “Don’t worry. Curtis won’t hole his putt.” And the eventual two-time U.S. Open champion misses. Rage wins the day: The Europeans take every afternoon match and eventually defeat the Americans on their home soil for the first time. Back in the time of Francisco Goya, the Spanish Romantic painter whose career stretched from the middle of the 18th century to the first decades of the 19th, Spain began to suffer major reversals in its global stature. Napoleon invaded in 1808, and Goya’s depictions of the attendant slaughter remain amongst the most bracing images of death in real time. In the war’s aftermath, he began to record Spain’s majos and majas, working-class men and women aggressively traditional in their dress and patriotism and deeply resentful of the ruling aristocracy. Every waking day, but especially at the Ryder Cup, Seve strutted like a majo.
1984 Open Championship
The 6-iron approach at the Road Hole
In training, technique and temperament—and certainly in public relations—Seve could never be considered a modern athlete. Though wildly popular, he never would have made the nut as the poster boy for today’s aggressive and existentially driven expansions by the PGA Tour and European Tour into China and the Middle East. Seve was a Spaniard who preferred being close to home. He made periodic forays to the U.S. to chase easy money and wider glory. He fought constantly with authority figures on both tours. He simply could not abide the arcana.
Seve struggled with English early on, but he always understood its insults: the constant needling from the American press, galleries and fellow players. He was anxious for the world’s recognition, but slow to adapt to its realities. On the recommendation of his sometime mentor, Roberto De Vicenzo, Seve attempted the 108-hole PGA Tour qualifying school in 1976. Through three rounds, he was set to be the youngest golfer ever to make it. It took a 40 on the final nine of the last day to leave him outside the qualifications. Some suggest it wasn’t a total accident.
By the time he reached the 1984 Open Championship at St. Andrews, he had set the golf world aflame at every possible way station from Augusta to, yes, occasionally, Asia. Now he came to the place Nicklaus had famously pronounced no memorable career could be complete without winning. Seve hated links golf at first, but came to love it. And this time he came to win at it. For all of the seemingly endless glories of their respective 10 years of dominance, neither Seve nor Tom Watson had reached the Nicklaus mandate of triumphing at St. Andrews. Princelings in place to assume Jack’s long-held throne, their careers often rhymed. As if by prophecy, they were at the top of the leaderboard at St. Andrews in 1984.
In the final round, Seve stands on the 17th, the fabled Road Hole. He is one shot clear of Watson, but in such instances of extreme pressure his game periodically lapses into what can be described only as “psychedelic periods.” Drives can land anywhere: on the green or two holes over or lost in a parallel-universe vortex. On the Road Hole, the hotel at St. Andrews looms directly right of the tee box, like a standard hazard grown six stories high. Desperately warding off the encroaching psychedelic vibes, Seve resolves not to hit the hotel. So he drives dead left into the matted rough and hopes for a lie. He gets it. From there he unleashes a majestic 200-yard 6-iron that lands comfortably on the green—the kind of par of which only Seve is capable. Golf of terror and courage.
Claret Jug secured, Watson’s perfunctory handshake redefines indifference. Seve complains to Gary Player, “Look how that guy congratulated me!”
But “that guy” had wanted it every bit as badly. “That guy” had to continue dealing with Jack’s surely haunting words: “If you’re going to be a player people remember…” Seve could be so self-centered.
1995 Spanish Open
The approach on the 15th
“The City of Fortune” is a well-known tale in Spain about the outsized ambition of a peasant named Rupert, who is bright and driven and wishes to locate a faraway city of untold riches. He hastens against the advice of others, who tell him to proceed cautiously. He takes a fast-moving boat, and the boatman demands money. When Rupert says he has none, the boatman says he’ll take a piece of his heart. Rupert concedes and accepts the ride. He gets to the outskirts of the city, but feels melancholy.
He is greeted by mountains and a second gatekeeper, who demands another piece of his heart. Rupert concedes. His journey proceeds apace, but his enthusiasm for getting there wanes further. A vulture asks for a piece of his heart for transport over an abyss. Rupert is closer to the City of Gold than ever. He gets to the gate and his heart is taken completely, except for one fiber. His human heart is replaced with a steel one.
The city isn’t what he expected, and he’s unimpressed by the riches that tempted him. All of the gold for which he traded his heart doesn’t fulfill him. He has no friends or family. He decides to go home. The only thing that keeps him standing is the fiber of his old heart that remains.
Once returned, he is greeted by his brother and father, but his steel heart does not allow him to experience any happiness. He is dismayed. He sees his mother and things go slightly better as the little fiber in his chest swells and displaces some of the steel. But the damage is done. Something once wondrous is well and truly broken. Maybe he should have just stayed home.
In 1995, at the Spanish Open, Seve registers his final victory as a pro. He is badly diminished, anyone can see, but the aura remains: lightly possessed, magnetic and positively sui generis. His tricky iron shot on the 15th hole at the Club de Campo Villa de Madrid in the final round won’t make his career-highlight reel, but it lands 5 feet from the pin and all but ensures victory—the last act of an assassin.
When Seve died, back in Pedreña, at the age of 54, it was the cruel conclusion to a story that kept us compelled right up until the finale—a one-person passion play that could tolerate no costars. That was Seve, and the ending still hurts. Pero, Dios mío, qué espectáculo tan increíble. But, my God, what a spectacular show.