When you ask those who knew the late Seve Ballesteros what words best described him, it’s no surprise the range of adjectives.
Unbelievable, magician, infectious, flair, self-belief, inspiration — just so many ways to describe a man that meant so much to the game.
This week marks the nine-year anniversary of his death from brain tumor on May 7, 2011 at the young age of 54, and it’s only fitting to give credit to his memory by visiting with the caddies, teammates and some Ryder Cup captains who knew to articulate their lasting images and moments they remember most about the five-time major champ (two Masters and three Open Championships).
A tough aspect of losing Seve almost a decade ago is so many younger golfers and fans won’t ever fully understand the risks he took because every YouTube clip or Golf Channel highlight is now likely 25 years old or more, so they don’t hold the same immediacy of the live moment as it happened. Not the same way they might understand Phil out of the pines in the 2010 Masters or Bubba from the trees in 2012.
Bernhard Langer was one of the big five from Europe during the 80s and 90s — along with Seve, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam — who got to compete against and with Seve on many occasions. Here is what he thinks younger fans should know about his friend and rival.
“He played with a lot of flair, a lot of emotion,” Langer said. “He was a very proud man. And he believed in himself.”
Seve’s four-time consecutive Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin loved the confidence that oozed from his “precocious” star.
“He had this infectious enthusiasm, he never thought anybody could beat him, just never, it never crossed his mind that anybody was better than he was,” Jacklin said.
No wonder this kid broke the record as the youngest Masters champion at the time when he was 23 in 1980 (Tiger would break that in 1997). The imagination and guts to pull off the miracle shots had to come from somewhere, and off the charts self-belief makes sense. And this style of play naturally drew droves of fans.
For former caddie Peter Coleman, who caddied for Seve in the early 80s for a little over a year, he knew what the fans were in for when they watched this Spanish legend in person.
“If you followed Seve for one or two holes, you’d see a shot that you’d remember for the rest of your life,” Coleman said. “He would almost always do something that was unbelievable.”
During tournaments when Seve and other European stars were in the same morning wave and on different tees within eyeshot of each other, Coleman noticed that the gallery would be 80/20 in favor of following Seve.
For Billy Foster, who spent five of his 38 years caddying for Seve from 1990-1995, he saw a one-of-a-kind talent.
“The magical skills that the man had — it was unrivaled,” Foster said. “There will never be another Seve Ballesteros and to me he was the most naturally gifted shot-maker that ever lived.”
The most amazing of the shots Foster saw Seve hit was actually in 1983, years before he started with the Spaniard. It was at the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National. Seve had 245 yards and was in a fairway bunker. Bernhard Langer, who finished his match and then came over to see Seve facing Fuzzy Zoeller all square on 18, describes it well.
“The greatest shot I’ve ever seen,” Langer said. “Seve hit 3-wood out of the fairway bunker with a lip in front. I was there watching him and I would have hit 8-iron out of that bunker just to make sure I could clear that lip and Seve hit a persimmon 3-wood with a steel shaft and got it over the lip and had to draw it, get the distance, carry the water. It was amazing.”
Seve’s shot landed on the fringe about 20 feet away and he holed the par to halve his match.
That year proved to be the closest Team Europe had gotten to beating the U.S. team on U.S. soil and teammate Nick Faldo remembers Seve’s surprising reaction, even in defeat.
“That was probably his greatest moment for me, when he walked in the team room after we’d lost and he was shaking his fists and saying ‘we must celebrate, this is a victory for us and now we know we can win’,” Faldo said.
As sports fans, remember that gutted feeling when your NBA team loses another Game 7 in the playoffs and you’ve got to wait at least another year to see if they can get over the hump? Or when you watch your favorite golfer throw away the Masters and wonder deep down if he’ll ever win it?
For these European Ryder Cup players in 1983, the other players in the locker room must have known it was going to be two more years before they could get that chance to somehow beat the American team that had won 13 straight at that point, every Ryder Cup since 1959.
But Seve had other ideas.
That ’83 Ryder Cup was the first of Jacklin’s four straight as captain and he said his team “hit the ground running” when they got to The Belfry in 1985.
“I had Seve in there as the general on the course if you like, and he got no rest from me,” Jacklin said. “I told him before every match ‘get plenty of rest because you’re not going to have a sit out, you’re going to be playing every morning and afternoon’.”
And how’d the superstar respond to that vote of confidence?
“He had no problem with that, he took it on,” Jacklin said. “I never had a single problem ever with Seve. He was fantastic for the team, he was so up for it.”
Seve went 3-1-1 playing every single session as promised and Jacklin’s Europeans finally delivered that first victory against the U.S. team since 1957, coincidentally the same year Seve was born.
Jacklin played in seven Ryder Cups, the last in 1979 when Seve played in his first, and it was the first time all of continental Europe was included in the matches.
Seve and the Europeans finally got to taste a win on U.S. soil that the Spaniard had foreshadowed in the team room in ’83 when they beat Jack Nicklaus’ team at his home course of Muirfield Village in ’87.
In all, Seve played on eight Ryder Cup teams as a player, the last of which in 1995 at Oak Hill produced some of the strongest emotion for even him.
Nick Faldo was playing in a late crucial match against Curtis Strange with the score tied 11.5 to 11.5 and five matches left on the course, and he trailed 1 down through 16 against a guy who’d won the U.S. Open at that course just six years earlier.
“I saved my match and turned it around from 1 down to win 1 up, that turned it around and Seve hugged me and said ‘you are a great champion’ (on the 18th green) so that was probably the greatest words ever said to me by another professional,” Faldo recalled.
And how did that make the teammate feel?
“We were all in tears, we all had a big cry about it,” Faldo said. “You cannot hold back that week and you can’t hold anything in.”
If there’s one video of Seve you need to watch, this poignant moment of their embrace on the green says so much about what the Ryder Cup meant to the Spaniard as he completely lost it after whispering Faldo that message (4:54 mark):
“He wanted to win at all costs, Seve, the ultimate warrior,” Foster says. “And when he went to war he wanted to win his match so badly. The effort that he put in to bringing points home to Europe, it was the world to him, it meant everything to him.”
And Foster remembers the way Seve carried himself in the moments before he stepped out to those Ryder Cups.
“As soon as his he walked out of the locker room and the spikes went on, the European Ryder Cup logo on his breast, the Ryder Cup visor, and lastly his dog muzzle,” Foster jokes. “He walked to the tee like a demented Rottweiler.”
Seve’s influence on today’s caddies
Mark Fulcher (who goes by Fooch) — the caddie for Francesco Molinari — had a wonderful experience with Seve during a European Tour event at Sunningdale in his native England during the early 80s.
“I was standing behind the driving range and for whatever reason he called me out and said, ‘come on, hit a shot,’ and I was a young teen. And I hit a shot with his 9 iron and he said ‘nice’ in Spanish, but that’s the only time I ever met him,” Fulcher said. “I never had the privilege of meeting him in person after that. I’ll never forget how cool that moment was.”
Could you put yourself in his shoes? What would it feel like to get that chance to be called out by the mega star of your continent and idol of yours and so many of your friends?
If only Twitter was around back then for Fooch.
Even if they didn’t grow up in Spain, many caddies today know what Seve meant to them as they pursued competitive golf, like Ricky Elliott in Portrush, Northern Ireland.
“He was just our hero growing up. Everybody wanted to be Seve when we were 12. Tiger hadn’t come along yet,” Elliott said. “Probably if it wasn’t for Seve I don’t know what else I’d be doing (as a career), maybe golf wouldn’t have appealed to me and I might have done something else. I probably wouldn’t be in the fortunate situation that I’m in now.”
Though Elliott never met Seve in person, veteran Paul Tesori did. In fact, it was during his first week on the job for world number 9 at the time Vijay Singh in 2000 at the Lancome Open in Paris.
“We got paired with Seve the first two days. I’ve only had two bad numbers in my entire life and one of those was in front of Seve,” Tesori said. “I was about eight off on a wedge shot and of course Vijay couldn’t help but say ‘Seve man, it’s his first full week on the bag and already a bad number’ and Seve’s like ‘ah, short, short life.’
“I remember Vijay coming over, in the tournament, Seve had already lost his long game, but coming over to me and saying, ‘Paul watch this, just watch Seve, he’s trying to make this bunker shot,’ and it would roll down there and just lip out. So, I think it was kind of those things that I remember about Seve.”
Seve’s big victory as 1997 Ryder Cup Europe Captain
Seve got his chance to be Ryder Cup Europe captain in 1997 at Valderrama in his home country as the Cup moved for the first time ever to continental Europe.
“For him to be in Spain and recognized for that captain’s role was huge,” Faldo said.
“It had to be a dream come true for him,” Langer added.
Faldo was amused how Seve, in a role he wasn’t used to playing, changed tunes a bit from early in the week through to Saturday night.
“At the beginning of the week he said, ‘I just want you to all relax, play, enjoy yourselves OK?’ Then the funny thing, Saturday night, ‘We have to win!’ He’s in our faces. ‘Don’t hit it in the bunkers, don’t three putt and don’t hit it in the trees.’ That was his sports psychology.”
Another hallmark of Seve’s captaincy was his use of Pan flutes (Zampona) music which he’d have playing on cassette tapes in the team room each morning before they went out to try and keep his team calm.
Faldo and Billy Foster were not fans.
“As soon as Seve would walk out the door Billy would put other music on. So that’s how we reversed psychology with him,” Faldo laughed. “Billy used to say, we’ll stop that. We’ll put something else on to rally us. Something a bit stronger.”
Foster says he must have put on some mid-80s music of the time.
But clearly players that week had to learn to work with the Ryder Cup captain’s own style and player tendencies.
“There was one time when Monty and I were playing the 18th hole and all square on Saturday, and it was alternate shot and I was in the trees,” Langer said. “And Seve started driving down the hill as fast as he could and pulled up in his cart and tried to tell me how to play the shot.”
Seve asked if Langer had considered the 1-iron. Starting it 30 yards left and below a branch before fading onto the green.
“The percentage on pulling that shot off was about 1 percent, to me,” Langer said. “It might have been 20-30 percent to Seve, but it was totally against us so I didn’t listen to him and I conferred with Monty.”
Langer laid up to Monty’s favorite wedge distance and the two ended up winning the match.
But in all of this, even today, Langer, a typically stoic talker, laughs out loud as he describes Seve’s unnatural spot — in a Ryder Cup with no clubs of his own.
“That was Seve, Seve was a player. He couldn’t sit in his buggy and let us play,” Langer laughed, “he needed to be out there telling us what to do because he would have loved to hit the shot.”
At the end of the week Seve won what would be his fifth Ryder Cup, but this time as a captain. And we should remember that this 14.5 to 13.5 win started a six-match winning streak for Team Europe at home that continues to today.
A sign of Seve’s continued influence on an event he loved so dearly.
And even now, nine years since his passing, we remember the player that our game still misses so dearly.