Remembering Seve at The Masters

Some memories and thoughts on Seve Ballesteros, who died on Saturday in Spain at the age of 54:

I covered the Masters for the Augusta Chronicle in 1980 through 1985, which was pretty much the Seve Era. He won twice in that span and continued to contend almost annually through the late 1980s, when I was on hand at the tournament as an editor at Golf Magazine. I wish it could say it was all a love-fest for the swashbuckling Spaniard on his favorite course in the world (with the possible exception of St. Andrews). It wasn’t that way, though. It was a far more complicated relationship.

Seve never really enjoyed playing in America. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the people, but he didn’t like the travel, the food, or being so far from home. He often talked of being homesick, especially in the early years.

Perhaps that’s one reason Ballesteros didn’t connect with the Augusta galleries quite as much as his charisma and exciting style of play would suggest—he was never fully comfortable in the U.S. But in a way that exciting style of play was itself a problem.

Many Americans—particularly those in the media—focused on Seve’s wild driving and penchant for recovery shots. He was the man who won the 1979 British Open while playing out of all manner of rough and bunkers and even making birdie from a parking lot (or “car park,” as it’s called over there). And in the U.S., he could win on the relatively wide playing grounds of Augusta but in the U.S. Open it was a different story.

If there is one word that best sums up Seve, it’s “pride.” And this proud man bristled because he felt that in America he wasn’t getting as much respect for his game as he deserved. At his press conferences in Augusta, Ballesteros would sarcastically say how “lucky” he was.

Those press conferences were in some ways similar to those of Tiger Woods today. Seve never wanted to say anything truly revealing about himself and was adept at deflecting questions. The difference was that Seve often deflected them with humor—and he had a very good sense of humor.

Ballesteros wasn’t being paranoid about how his game was viewed in the U.S. I remember once when he hit his tee shot into the woods to the left of the 13th fairway but was able to hit a comfortable shot out and make a par five, a well-known newspaper columnist standing in a group of reporters at Amen Corner shook his head and pretty much scoffed at Seve as being lucky.

The funny thing is, Arnold Palmer was revered for pretty much the same “go-for-broke” style of play and ability to escape trouble. Nobody—except maybe Ben Hogan—viewed Arnie as being lucky. (Also, the occasional wild drive obscured the fact that Seve’s game was much more sound than he was given credit for.)

In Europe, Seve was their Arnie, in more ways than one. It wasn’t just the way he played, it was his out-sized influence on the game. He was the one who convinced Europeans that they could shine on the world stage and beat the Americans (his 1980 Masters victory represented the first green jacket for a European). He was the key to the huge growth of the European Tour in prize money and number of tournaments. He was the leader in Europe’s drive to competitiveness, and even superiority, in the Ryder Cup.

Over there, Seve was loved and viewed as a magician with a golf club. Over here, he was somewhat grudgingly seen as a great player but one with a prickly personality (which was true) and who owed a degree of his Masters success to the fact that the course happened to favor his type of game.

In the early to mid 1980s, Seve and Tom Watson were co-favorites heading into every Masters. And while he never completely won American hearts, Seve put on quite a show. Here are some of my memories from Seve at the Masters.

Naturally, my strongest memories are of a couple of Ballesteros recovery shots. In the second round, Seve hit his tee shot on the 17th hole onto the adjacent seventh green. With Seve’s ball lying 12 feet from the hole, David Graham, who was playing the seventh, told him, “You’ve got a putt for an eagle there if you want it.” Ballesteros, as the rules require, dropped his ball to the side of the seventh green, and proceeded to hit a blind shot to the 17th green which finished 15 feet from the flag, resulting in a birdie.

The next day, he badly hooked his tee shot on the fifth hole to an area near the sixth green where few had gone before. He faced a choice of pitching out sideways or hitting it toward the green over some tall trees ahead of him. Not only were the trees tall, they were on a hill ahead of the valley he was in, which meant he needed to hit an extraordinarily high shot to clear them. He pulled it off, his ball soaring over the trees to the fairway close to the green from where he made a par. I wasn’t there, but looked at the spot later and marveled at how he was able to get over those trees.

I do remember a very good drive that Seve hit later in the third round. At the time there were some humps in the 15th fairway that had been installed in the 1960s to keep balls from rolling too far. Seve launched a drive that caught the downslope on the back of the humps, propelling it forward and leaving him with a mid-iron second shot to the par five. Players watching on television in the locker room marveled at what they saw.

Ballesteros shot 66-69-68 in the first three rounds to open up a seven-stroke lead (over Ed Fiori, of all people). A 33 on the front nine increased the margin to 10. He was in position for an iconic victory on the same scale as a couple of other young players, 23-year-old Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and, later, 21-year-old Tiger Woods in 1997. A 35 on the back nine would tie Nicklaus’ 72-hole record of 271. What followed instead was one of the strangest hours ever seen at the Masters—by the time Ballesteros was playing the 14th hole his lead was down to two over Gibby Gilbert, who reeled off four straight birdies about the same time Seve went bogey, par, double bogey, bogey to start the back nine, with a tee shot in the water on the 12th and a second shot into the water on the 13th. Ballesteros hit a tree with his drive at the 14th, but he made a par, and then he steadied himself with a birdie at the par-five 15th. With a 39 on the back nine, he ended up winning by four.

While Ballesteros was being interviewed after the third round, the leaderboard in the interview room was updated to reflect Craig Stadler making a third straight birdie to finish the round and open a three-stroke lead. Asked to comment on Stadler’s finish, Seve said, in his Spanish accent that seemed to make everything a little funnier, “Birdie, birdie, birdie. He’s very consistent!” The next day Ballesteros would finish one stroke out of a playoff won by Stadler over Dan Pohl.

One behind Ray Floyd and Stadler through 54 holes, Ballesteros roared out of the gate with a birdie-eagle-par-birdie start on the way to a 31 on the front nine. He once again stumbled on the back nine but finished with a 69 to win by four, with a chip-in for a par on the last hole. Said Tom Kite of Seve’s start, “It was like he was in a Ferrari, and the rest of us were in Chevrolets.”

Finished second, two strokes behind Bernhard Langer, though it was really a battle between Langer and Curtis Strange, who blew the lead on the back nine.

Jack Nicklaus was making a charge, but the Masters was still in Seve’s hands as he stood in the 15th fairway with a one-stroke lead and about to hit a four-iron to the green for his second shot to the par five. But he hit the shot into the water, eliciting what Nicklaus, standing on the 17th tee, called an “odd sound” from the gallery. It wasn’t a groan, it was something very close to a cheer. It was more of a pro-Nicklaus cheer, as the gallery was pulling for the 46-year-old to create a last hurrah, than an anti-Seve expression, but still it must have been discordant music to Ballesteros’ ears. Seve bogeyed the 15th, Nicklaus birdied the 17th, and it would be a sixth green jacket for Jack instead of a third for Seve.

Another chance gone when Ballesteros three-putted for a bogey on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff with Greg Norman and eventual champion Larry Mize. Declining a cart ride, Seve slowly walked back up the hill of the 10th fairway to the clubhouse.

Seve’s last bid at a Masters title came in 1989 when he finished fifth, two strokes out of a playoff. The next year, he four-putted the 16th green in the first round. It has become legend that when asked in the interview room to describe his four-putt, Seve said, “I miss, I miss, I miss, I make.” Actually, I have to debunk that. Here’s what he said, according to my notes: “35 feet, went 4 feet past, I missed the hole, then I missed the hole again.” Still pithy enough to draw a chuckle from the press room.

Ballesteros’ flame burned out early, as he was finished as a major force by his mid-30s. Fortunately, with the passage of time he has become most remembered, even in America, for his flair for the game, his remarkable shot-making ability, his imaginative short game, and most of all for his indomitable will.

Seve’s competitive fire was never more in evidence than when he captained the European team to victory at the Ryder Cup in Spain in 1997. I’m normally a little dubious that a player can even will himself to victory. So, how can it be expected that a captain, who doesn’t hit a single shot, can lift others to play well by the force of his will? I’m not sure, but somehow I had the sense that Seve just would not let his team lose in the first Ryder Cup ever played in Spain—and they didn’t.

Sadly, cancer does not bend to a person’s will, not even Seve’s. He lost that battle, and was taken away from us far too soon. But what lingers in our minds is not those inaccurate drives. It’s the amazing shots he hit, the gleam in his eyes as he played the game, and, most of all, his tremendous spirit.

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