EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a special to The Caddie Network written by longtime PGA Tour caddie Scott Sajtinac, president of the Association of Professional Tour caddies.
Word on the street 13 years ago, was 2007 would be the final Masters appearance for five-time major winner and two-time Masters champion, the legendary Seve Ballesteros.
Well, at least that was the whisper in the caddie house, the lone building that sits adjacent the Augusta National driving range. A building where Masters Tournament caddies come and go, but the stories stay. I’d overheard a couple of the veteran European caddies talking about it over a cold beer on the eve of the tournament. I was there on the back of a Paul Goydos win at the Sony Open in Hawaii earlier that year. Zach Johnson was the last man standing that week, in what was as tough a Masters Tournament in history — at least that’s what the +1 winning score suggested, the highest ever recorded. It was cold, it was cloudy, it was windy. And the wind came from all over the map, changing by the minute.
“We got Seve the first two days,” I said to my Scottish counterpart, as he slouched deep into a lounge chair by the lockers, his feet up on the table. He raised his beer and with a thick Scottish burr replied, “Aye, you’re in for a real treat Scotty boy.”
11:29 a.m. was our first-round tee time that year. At 11:25 a.m., I met Seve for the first time.
As a kid growing up in Australia in the 1980s, you never told anyone you played golf. Not a soul other than those in your inner sanctum, and they were usually golfers themselves. It’s not that golf was uncool per se, but reality was, it just wasn’t cool. You certainly weren’t getting into any cute girl’s knickers telling kids on campus you played golf. But if they only knew.
It was a given that all three members of our on-campus secret society of golf nerds barracked for the Aussies at the Masters. Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Wayne Grady, you couldn’t not. Greg had come agonizingly close a few times. Baker-Finch was starting to put a stamp on his career, often featuring in majors. Australian pro golfers were truly world class, and getting up at two in the morning Australia time to watch the live feed from America was beyond exciting. Running outside during commercial breaks with a driver in hand to make practice swings in the dark, mimicking those we’d just seen on TV — then darting back inside as to not miss a second. No TiVo back then, bitches.
As the patriot I am, Adam Scott’s victory still bringing a smile to my face to this day, it makes this almost sacrilegious for me to admit, and I’m sorry Greg, but I wasn’t just pulling for The Great White Shark all those years. There was another. A non-Australian. He wore all black a lot, a Nike swoosh white visor. A fierce stare and a fairway march that mirrored a wartime general leading troops to battle. Seve was a pirate, a cool swashbuckler long before Jack Sparrow and golf were cool. Seve was a rock star.
So, fast forward two decades plus, and imagine how I was feeling at 11:25 a.m. on that cold Thursday morning.
The golf was lackluster that day to say the least, at least for us anyway. The cold hard truth of it was, the biting winds and several new tee boxes that year made Augusta National a real punch in the face for the shorter hitters like Goydos. It was a struggle from the get go. Our third in the group was the Swede, Carl Pettersson. His day wasn’t much better. But we all knuckled down, side by side with Seve, grinding our way through the pine trees and azaleas of Augusta National, just happy to be there. Happy to be paired with a golfing and Masters legend in Seve Ballesteros.
Friday at The Masters, to me at least, has a feel of its own. First-round scores have been posted, the cut line is the talk of the day, and there’s a changing of the ‘patron’ guard, with a fresh wave of excitable weekend ticket holders streaming in from around the world. It was pretty clear early in that second round we were all missing the cut. But the company of Goydos was always enjoyable, and if Pettersson can’t make you laugh, no one ever will. Now it still wasn’t official that Seve was retiring, but the way I looked at it was I had the best seat in the house in case it was. It was the best seat in the house to watch arguably the most charismatic Masters champion ever, maybe play his last Masters round ever. I didn’t care that it was 40 degrees windchill, it was going to be a terrific day.
When we made the turn the crowds following us grew. Not that they were small by any stretch, but they definitely got bigger. Down through Amen Corner, up through 14, 15, 16, the galleries swelled, lining the fairways three to four deep. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought Seve was a rock star. Maybe they had all heard the same caddie yard whispers I had. Right there all I knew was, as a kid, I wish I’d told everyone I was a golfer. This was cool as f**k.
Seve had his young nephew on the bag that week. Early 20s, he worked full-time at Seve’s golf course design company back in Spain. He was a super nice kid, and we hit it off immediately, exchanging stories about our home countries, both arguing each others home nation and the hottest women. By the time we got to the 16th tee, the place was electric. That’s when the standing ovations began. And not just a few people on their feet, but everyone on their feet. And not just a seconds-long standing ovation, I’m talking those long extended ones reserved for only a select few. They cheered, and they clapped, and they cheered and they whistled — and it wasn’t for Paul Goydos. Making our way to the green, we could barely hear ourselves think. I had know idea what we were shooting, and I didn’t care.
Hole 17 was a blur for me, just going through the motions. My focus was on the rock star, striding up the fairway, graciously waving his iconic visor to the thousands of fans there to see him off. I don’t remember if we made a 4 or an 8, or somewhere in between, right there and then nothing else mattered.
Seve was the last to hit his tee shot on 18. He let it rip with a loud crack, the strike of the ball echoing amongst the pine trees, the roars from the gallery getting louder. I was the last guy to leave the tee box, the others already marching up the hill to the 18th fairway. With the bag on my back, I picked up the pace to a canter almost, to catch up to Seve’s caddie. “Pretty cool, huh?” I said, smiling.
He smiled back, “Way cool.”
Now I’ve never been one for golf memorabilia, or any sports memorabilia for that matter. I don’t have a collection cool photos, or pin flags, or autographs. I don’t keep my caddie credentials from major championships I’ve caddied in. Even the one sports trophy I ever received for best “sportsmanship” on my 1984 Little League team, was lost long ago. To me, it’s all about the moment. That’s all that counts. But for some reason, marching up that 18th fairway, I asked Seve’s nephew if he could get his uncle to sign a golf ball for me.
“No problem Scotty,” was the reply.
Ten deep the fans were by now, all the way up the lengthy 18th hole. Surrounding the elevated green seemed like there was 100,000 people. A constant roar of admiration for the two-time Masters champion who’d put European golf on the map. Seve had missed the 18th green pin high right to the traditional Friday back pin. I have no idea where we hit our approach shot, and not to sound cold, but I don’t really care. In between shots, as the group finished their 2007 Masters campaign, the ovation grew louder. I had taken up a spot at the back of the green under the TV tower, leaning on the bag, soaking up one of those rare moments in sports. Was this really it? Was this Seve’s last round at the Masters?
Seve pitched up a little zippy spinner third shot that came to rest a foot or so from the cup. Once again, roars quickly replaced what was stealthy silence just seconds before — and those roars quickly turned into another standing ovation. I blame it on the 40-degree windchill, but I was covered in goosebumps, and there may have been some kind of salty liquid welling in my eyes. The roars never stopped as Seve tapped in and they didn’t stop for some time. At this point, I had forgotten about asking for the ball. I was in some kind of twilight zone standing under that 18th green TV tower.
As Pettersson was wrapping up his final putt of the day, Seve joined me under the tower.
“Thank you very much, amigo,” he said, as he put his arm around me and shook my hand. “This is for you.”
In his hand, Seve had the grass-stained ball he had just tapped in with. He pulled the lid off a blue sharpie with his teeth, and signed that grass stained ball… Seve Ballesteros.
“Good luck next week, amigo,” he said, and handed me the ball. There was no official announcement that Seve was retiring from professional golf or from competing at the Masters. Maybe this wasn’t his last one after all.
I flew home that next morning, the golf ball delicately wrapped with some tissue paper that came as lining in an Augusta National golf shirt I had bought my Dad as a souvenir from pro shop. It went into its own zipper compartment of my carry on for the flight home. This was precious cargo.
What proceeded a year later was more tragic than any announcement of my golf hero’s retirement from the sport. In October 2008, Seve announced to the world he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was in shock, the golfing world was in shock. How could this be? He seemed so healthy when I had seen him just 18 months before. That energizing charisma I had witnessed was in full force. After a 3-year battle, Seve succumbed to the disease, passing away on May 7, 2011. That 2007 Masters was, in fact, Seve’s last Maters appearance.
For fear of misplacement, I put that delicately wrapped golf ball in my silverware draw knowing that was as safe a spot as any. And every day I was home for 10 straight years I would look at it, every once in a while unwrapping it, like a Fabergé egg to take a peak. The once green grass stains on it, faded to brown. A little piece of sports history, right there in my kitchen.
Now, I don’t know why it took me so long, but it dawned on me this golf ball didn’t belong in a drawer next to my soup spoons. It needed to be somewhere special. Having caddied for Masters champion Trevor Immelman, I was lucky enough to have been inside the ANGC clubhouse a few times. It was a shrine to Masters history and the rooms were filled with iconic Masters memorabilia. Pieces of history that helped shape the tournament into one of the greatest sporting events on earth. I reached out to caddie buddy of mine, Butchy Little, who had won the Masters with Mike Weir several years earlier. I knew he was friendly with a few of the Augusta members, so I had him reach out to one them, offering up the ball for their collection of historical Masters trinkets.
The calls went to no avail. Maybe Augusta National didn’t want it. So I reached out to the World Golf Hall of Fame. That ran into dead ends too, so the Fabergé egg remained next to my soup spoons in a high rise in downtown Houston.
Standing on the par-5 15th tee box, during the 2017 RSM Classic, we had a lengthy wait. It was reachable in two that day and play had backed up. We were paired with Spaniard Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño and he being Spanish, I told him the story, of Seve’s last ball at The Masters. Telling him I was trying to reach out to Augusta National, to donate the ball, maybe the Golf Hall of Fame.
His eyes lit up. “No, no, no, no,” he said, in his deep and gravely Spanish accent. “No, no. If this is true, there is only one place for this ball. The Trophy Room at Seve’s home club in Pedreña.”
Gonzalo as it turns out, was a long time friend of Javier Ballesteros, Seve’s eldest son, and we were able to make it happen — getting that special golf ball where it belongs.
This is the ball my dad used in his last shot at his last Masters in 2007. Thanks Scott Sajtinac for your amazing gesture sending it to us pic.twitter.com/xkvlR9vQCR
— Javier Ballesteros (@J_Ballesteros1) November 3, 2017