The caddies of Pedre√±a, a village beside the Bay of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, played golf with homemade clubs. They reclaimed old, rusted club heads, jammed sticks of wood into the hosels, then soaked them overnight in a bucket of water to make the wood swell to a tight fit. If they were lucky, the clubs lasted two or three days before they broke. Severiano Ballesteros was seven years old when he made his first club. He scoured the fields around the village for sticks and the beach on the edge of the bay for stones the size of golf balls. With these rough tools, Ballesteros began to learn his trade, little knowing that one day he would lead a golfing revolution.
For half a century American golfers have had an overlapping grip on the royal and ancient game of the Scots. Since Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930, the giants of golf have sprung from U.S. soil—Ben Hogan in a Texas caddie yard; Arnold Palmer in a small town in western Pennsylvania; Jack Nicklaus in the Ohio heartland. In between were the likes of Hagen, Sarazen, Nelson, Snead, Trevino, Watson. Decade after decade American talent ran so deep that foreign players rarely left a mark. Only Gary Player, winning nine major championships while shuttling halfway around the world from his farm in South Africa, carved himself a permanent place in a game that had become as American as apple pie and Buckeye football.
Now, however, the boundary markers have been moved. Bern hard Langer, a West German, has won the Masters. TzeChung Chen of Taiwan nearly won the U.S. Open. Denis Watson, a Zimbabwean transplant, was a three-time winner on the PGA Tour last year. And next week Ballesteros, a caddie-genius from that village in Spain, twice a Masters champion, twice a British Open champion, will defend his British title at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England.
The revolution that has changed the face of golf began on July 10, 1976, in the final round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale on the west coast of England, when Ballesteros, 19 years old and win-less outside Spain, hit a brazen little chip shot between two bunkers to the 18th green that electrified everyone who saw it. Watching the telecast 6,000 miles away in Dallas, Lee Trevino let out a whoop and shouted to his wife, "Claudia, come in and watch. This kid has got to be something!"
July 14, 1985
Driving with abandon, aiming his irons at the pins, rescuing himself from the wrong side of bushes and sand dunes with shots invented for the occasion, Ballesteros had led the tournament for the first three rounds. On the last day, however, his game began to come apart, and by the 7th hole he had lost his lead for good to Johnny Miller.
By rights, Ballesteros should have been shattered. In half a day he had blown his chance to be both the first Spaniard to win a major championship and the youngest British Open winner since Young Tom Morris in 1868. But shattered he was not. From the 13th through the 17th he recovered four of the seven strokes he had lost. He still could not catch Miller, but with a birdie at the par-5 18th, he could tie Jack Nicklaus for second.
Ballesteros tore into his drive, then hit a mighty iron and wound up on a patch of short, scraggly rough in front of the large green. Between him and the pin, which was at the front of the green, lay two bunkers and a mound. A narrow strip of hard ground ran up and over the mound between the bunkers. With a sand wedge he could clear the bunkers, but he might not be able to stop the ball on the green. If he chipped onto the narrow strip, he risked sending the ball veering into one of the bunkers. The wedge meant a safe par; a chip might mean a birdie and a tie with the greatest player of all time.
Using a nine-iron, Ballesteros hit the gentlest of chips. The ball popped up, dropped onto the narrow strip between the bunkers, bounced softly to the crest of the mound and trickled down the other side onto the green, coming to a stop four feet past the hole. He sank the putt.
Nine years later, Seve Ballesteros is as famous as any Spaniard alive, possibly barring Julio Iglesias. American TV announcers have even learned to pronounce his name: bye-yuh-STAY-ros. In Europe he has done for golf what Arnold Palmer did for the game in the U.S. in the '60s. His daring, his 300-yard drives, his barely believable recovery shots, his glowering intensity, his flashing smile, have injected a large measure of excitement into a spectator sport that is often necessarily sedate.
"He's made for this medium," said Frank Hannigan, senior executive director of the USGA, with a sweeping gesture that took in the 27 CBS cameras covering the '85 Masters. "They come in for a close shot and they can't miss. You can see his thought processes. For me he is more fun to watch than any player in the world."
For an athlete's thought processes to matter, the athlete has to matter. Ballesteros matters, not simply because at 28 he has won four major championships, but because he has the potential to win many more, in fact to become one of those rare players whose eras mark the passage of time in golf, who are, for a period of years, literally peerless.
Ballesteros has a talent that makes his possibilities limitless. "He got the talent when he was born," says Manuel Ballesteros, Seve's 36-year-old brother. Manuel, a touring professional, has put a curb on his playing career to guide his younger brother. "I never saw a player with this kind of ability before," Manuel says. "They say he is like Arnold Palmer, but Arnold Palmer doesn't have the ability of a Seve at all."
Ben Crenshaw says, "I think he comes as close to a complete player as anybody I've ever seen. He can hit every shot in the bag and do it with the style and the look of a champion. It's just amazing. He even walks like a champion."
In 1982, in a foreword to Ballesteros's biography, Seve: The Young Champion, Trevino wrote, "By the time he finishes, in about twenty years, he may not be equal to Jack Nicklaus—nobody will ever be equal to Jack Nicklaus—but he'll be more than equal to all the rest of us—myself, Watson, Byron Nelson, and even Ben Hogan. Seve Ballesteros, through the 1980s, will be the successor to Jack Nicklaus."
The 1980s are half over now. While Ballesteros shares the top rung of golf's ladder with Tom Watson, he is, so far, a successor, not the successor. Life has made a habit of interfering with Ballesteros's timing. A bad back threatened his career for a while. A feud with the British PGA kept him off the European circuit for a year. Another with the U.S. tour limited his play in this country. His association with the American firm that handled his business affairs from 1975 to 1983 dissolved in acrimony and litigation. His relationships with his fellow players have not always been cordial. He has surmounted his difficulties, one by one, but the wear and tear on his psyche has taken its toll.
Ballesteros's greatest struggle, however, has been with his greatest asset, his Latin temperament. It allows him to rise to heights others cannot attain, but cannot always be braked when the situation demands control. Further, it magnifies his problems both on and off the golf course.
"Golf is the only sport in the world that has so much contact with the public," says Ballesteros. "In the clubhouse, on the driving range, on the putting green, even when you play on the course, people are beside you. I always admired Jack Nicklaus. He's much better than I at golf and at handling all those things. He looks very relaxed, very loose. Latin people, you know, have hot blood. Sometimes I have difficulty controlling myself. Sometimes I lose control. I don't show it publicly but inside I feel a little tight and a little claustrophobic. Jack never seems in a hurry for anything. I think he has the perfect character for this game."
Ballesteros is quick to anger when things go wrong, but not as quick as he once was. At a pro-am in France, when he was only 17 and in his first season on the European tour, he played the back nine spectacularly—a series of birdies punctuated by eagles—but when he took a par on the last hole he chopped down a bush at the edge of the green with his putter. His temper still grips him now and then, but he has learned that anger can be put to constructive uses, too. At the Masters in 1980, he was playing the best golf of his life and led by 10 shots with nine holes to play, but on the next four holes he lost seven strokes to Jack Newton, his closest pursuer. The crowd alongside the fairways, seeing a walkover turning into a horse race at last, came to life. As the drama grew, so did the crowd's excitement, and Ballesteros, observing the reaction, assumed that the spectators were cheering for his downfall. Mortally affronted and lusting for revenge, he played the last four holes in one under par to win by four strokes. "It woke me up, I think," he says. "I am like Gary Player. The more the crowd is against me, the more I want to prove something."
Ballesteros has identified with Player ever since 1972 when 25 caddies from Pedre√±a, Seve among them, were transported 16 hours by bus to a tournament that opened the La Manga resort on Spain's southern coast. "Manos de plata. That's what we called him," Seve says. "Silver hands. He was the first champion I ever met. I saw him hitting so many balls. He was my idol. I admire him very much because he came from a modest family, he went through tough things, and because of the way he fights. He never gives up. Es el espejo que lo tienes que fijar. He is the mirror for other players to see what they want to be."
Ballesteros has also been quick to tears. He wept in 1976 in Palm Springs, Calif. when he and countryman Manuel Pi√±ero won the World Cup for Spain, but that, he says, was the only time he cried over winning a tournament. "I cry more often because I lose. Many times I cry. It's funny. I don't know why." Pi√±ero remembers finding Ballesteros alone in the locker room after the last round of the 1974 Spanish PGA Championship. Seve was 16, it was his first professional tournament, and he had finished 20th. "He was sobbing with his head on his knees," Pi√±ero told Dudley Doust of the London Sunday Times. Manuel Ballesteros confirms the story. "He really believed he was going to win. He was still a child."
"When everything was still in front of me, I used to be very explosive," says Ballesteros. "I'm still impatient, but not as much anymore." Nevertheless, the pent-up fury of his desire to win breaks through once in a while. On the last day of the Masters this year, Ballesteros was in hot pursuit of Langer, but he needed a birdie on the par-3 16th hole. He had to have it.
Aiming his tee shot directly for the pin. Ballesteros missed the green by a few feet to the left, leaving his ball in short, thick grass on a small slope. He took a longer time than usual setting himself up for the shot. The longer he took, the clearer it became that he fully intended his next shot to go into the hole. He was telegraphing his intentions. When the ball did not go into the hole—when it grazed the pin and rolled three feet past—Seve collapsed headlong onto the grassy slope in disbelief and despair. It was not a gesture for the grandstand. The effort of will expended on the shot had drained him temporarily of the strength even to stand.
"Not now, but two or three years ago, I used to dream I was winning the U.S. Open by 20 strokes, but I always woke up on the 17th hole. I never finished the tournament, even when I was dreaming," he says. The last sentence is a small, rueful joke, told at his own expense, on a subject that surely causes him pain. The U.S. Open is a tournament that gives him nightmares with its narrow fairways and punishing rough. Ballesteros's record in the Open is awful: 1978, tied for 16th; 1979, missed the cut; 1980, disqualified for arriving late for his tee time; 1981, tied for 41st; 1982, missed the cut; 1984, tied for 30th. Only at Oakmont in 1983, when he shared the lead after three rounds but finished in a tie for fourth, and at Oakland Hills last month, when he tied for fifth, did he have real chances.
"The Open is particularly hard for him," says Hannigan. "It is set up for his weakness. He overreacts to that, and he hits with shorter and shorter clubs."
Ballesteros agrees. "The Open is a very difficult tournament for me to win," he says. "Accuracy counts more than any other thing. Ninety percent of the time if you miss the green you are going to make bogey. I don't very much agree with that, but it is important to win it. I don't hit the ball as straight as Cal Peete or Tom Kite, but I don't hit the ball as crooked as people think. One of these years I'll have my week, and then maybe I'll win."
After Oakland Hills, Ballesteros headed home to Pedre√±a, as he always does, like a horse returning to the barn.
Pedre√±a is a village set amid green hills that spill down to the Bay of Santander, a sheltered inlet off the Bay of Biscay on the north coast of Spain. Across the bay from Pedre√±a is Santander, a provincial capital with a population of 180,000. Santander is the home of the members who play at the Real Club de Golf de Pedre√±a. Pedre√±a is the home of the people who work at the club. Seve and his three older brothers, Baldomero, 38, Manuel, 36, and Vicente, 33, all golf pros now, caddied at Real Pedre√±a, one of the finest courses in the north of Spain, but they learned to play on a flat beach between the course and the bay. Only one day a year, on the occasion of the annual caddie tournament, were the Real Pedre√±a caddies allowed to play the golf course.
Several changes have occurred in Pedre√±a since Ballesteros was a boy. The caddies now can play the course in the mornings, the beach has been converted to a practice range, and the stone farmhouse on the hillside above the range, where Seve and his brothers were born and where cows once occupied the ground floor, stands empty. Seve has built a new house on another hill where he and his parents and a German shepherd puppy named Masters live now. The new house, even with its tennis court, swimming pool, putting green, small gymnasium and breathtaking views of the mountains and sea, is not itself pretentious. It is scaled to fit Pedre√±a, not to overwhelm it.
When the boys were young, Carmen Ballesteros could look from her kitchen window down onto the flat beach where her sons spent their days learning a trade of which she disapproved. "She didn't see golf as a good future," Seve says. "She thought we should have a more secure job. She was looking out for us. All mothers do that, especially in Spain."
Seve's father, who owns both land and cows—the measure of prosperity among the farmers of the north of Spain—is still, at 66, lean and strong and fit. In his youth he was a rowing champion in the 12-man boats called traineras, which still compete on the bay at Santander. It is true that Seve never had a pair of golf shoes until he was 12, or a set of clubs till he was 16, yet the Ballesteros family was far from poor. They were, like most country people, and like Seve himself, simply disinclined to spend their money needlessly. The father, however, being an athlete himself, encouraged his sons. "My father was always thinking positive, with all the brothers," says Seve. "He says, 'Always believe in yourself, don't be worried, just keep trying.' "
When Seve was eight and had been batting stones about with his homemade club for a year, Manuel gave him a real three-iron. From then on, Seve and his club were rarely parted. Manuel once said that Seve without the three-iron was like a man with no legs. That same year Seve began to caddie for about 250 a day. The club rules forbade him the golf course, but from his backyard he could hit balls over a tall stand of pines onto the second green, and he could sneak onto the course to play a few holes at night. He recalls, "If you heard nothing, that was good. You were in the fairway. If you heard noise, that was bad. You were in the trees." Once Seve was caught taking a couple of swings with a member's club, and for his crime he was suspended from caddying for a week. The memory of the injustice still causes a dark cloud to pass across his handsome face.
Seve became a magician with his three-iron; he could do anything with it. He would bet a few pesetas or a Coke that he could bounce a ball 1,000 times on the head of the club, or he would race the other caddies along the beach, balancing a ball on the club face as he ran. "It really helps to learn with one club," he says. "It builds up your imagination. It makes you think and work out all kinds of shots."
At 12, Ballesteros played the hilly Pedre√±a course in 79 and won the caddie championship. At 13 he beat Manuel for the first time. (Keep in mind that Manuel is eight years older and was a touring professional then.) At 14 he quit school, which had never interested him anyway, and at 16 he turned pro. He was following in the footsteps of his brothers before him, but he was different and they all knew it. Ramón Sota, Seve's uncle, has been head professional at Real Pedre√±a for 29 years. A stocky man with a wide, handsome face, Sota was Spain's best golfer in the 1960s and early '70s; at one time or another he held the open championships of six countries, and between 1965 and 1972 his tweed cap was a familiar sight at the Masters, where once, in 1965, he finished tied for sixth.
"A player like Seve is born with the game in here," says Sota. He pats his broad chest in the vicinity of his heart. "He never took lessons from me. Never. The only thing he ever did was say, 'What do you think about this one?' or 'How do you hit a bunker shot?' The rest? Him. You follow me?"
When Seve turned pro in 1974, brother Manuel deemphasized his career to become his guide and protector. "I spoke only a little English," recalls Manuel, "but it was enough to help Seve not to be afraid. All he had to do in those days was play. I had to learn as I played."
Sometimes Manuel has caddied for Seve, as he did at the Masters this year. At such times Manuel takes considerable abuse from his excitable protégé. Manuel, however, is highly excitable, too. Last April in Augusta, Seve shot a 72 in the first round that, because he was rarely in a fairway, could very easily have been a 76 or 78. Manuel was distraught. He came off the 18th green in his baggy white coveralls and Augusta green cap, listing under the weight of Seve's bag, talking and gesticulating furiously to a small group of Spanish friends. Mystified reporters stood with their pencils poised, waiting to learn what disaster lurked in the torrent of Spanish words. "It should have been 70!" Manuel at last gasped in English.
British golf writers, who follow Ballesteros closely, point out that he has fared best when he has used British caddies such as Dave Musgrove and Peter Colman. They speculate, half-seriously, that the tightfisted Seve would use them more often if his brothers were not cheaper.
Ballesteros believes the press has made too much of the element of luck that seems to be part of his game. When he pulls off a shot no one else would even consider trying, to get himself out of a fix that only he would be in, he feels that he should be given credit for the years he spent preparing to make just such a shot. At the British Open in 1979 at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's, Seve deliberately hit his tee shot at the 16th into a parking lot because he knew that the rough there would be well trodden. He also knew that if his ball ended up under a car, which it did, he would then be entitled to relief, which he was. He insists that luck had nothing to do with that shot, nor with the sand-wedge shot from there to the green, nor with the 20-foot putt he then made for a birdie.
Ballesteros won that Open and his "lucky" parking-lot shot became famous. Four years later, when he won his second Masters, he was still miffed. "You have to play good here," he said at a press conference afterward, then added sarcastically, "I mean lucky. I never play good."
He tends to overreact to unintended slights, and the press, especially the American press, which has not had much chance to get to know him, overreacts in turn, failing to take into account, as Crenshaw does, that all the great champions "can be a little testy." "On the other hand," says Michael Williams of the London Daily Telegraph, "he will surprise you with something thoughtful." In 1979 at Lytham, Seve was walking back to his hotel after a cocktail party in celebration of his British Open victory, carrying a magnum of champagne. As he passed Williams's house, he spotted the journalist, who was inside, and gave him the champagne. "This is for you to share with your friends," he said.
"He is a wonderful guy," says Crenshaw. "He really is. A delightful person with a great sense of humor. I think we don't put ourselves in his situation. Not until you go overseas and see for yourself do you know how tough it is. Everything's different." "He is a good, gentle, kind person," says Manuel Martinez, a restaurant owner from Canton, Ohio, who has come to be a close friend. "If I had 10 sons, I would like them all to be like Seve." Martinez was born in the mountains near San Sebastiàn, not far from Santander, and sometimes travels with Ballesteros in the U.S.
Ballesteros chooses his friends carefully. Martinez is an example. They met when Seve first played the World Series of Golf in Akron. They spoke Spanish with the same regional accent, and they became friends because Seve trusted Martinez. "You will never see rich people with briefcases around him," says Martinez.
One of Ballesteros's oldest friends is Jorge de Ceballos, who tends the Ballesteros business empire from an office in Madrid while continuing to work full-time for Iberia Airlines as a deputy general manager. Seve's company is called Fairway, S.A., and like everything he does, it is a family affair. Seve owns 85%, his three brothers 5% each. De Ceballos is a director but not a shareholder. Among other things, de Ceballos is the guard at the door of Ballesteros's private life; all requests for Seve's time are cleared through him.
"You meet someone like Seve who has everything—family, health, wealth, fame, the best golf swing—and you think he must be thanking God all the time," de Ceballos says. "But he is not a happy person. I look at him, and I think, 'What is this damn life doing to him?' He is a perfectionist and perfection is very hard to achieve."
The Spanish press knows little and cares less about golf. Ballesteros is expected to win every time, the way a matador is expected to kill the bull every time. When he does not, he is criticized. In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, he is perceived less as a golfer than as a celebrity on the order of a rock star. Magazines feign interest in his golf in order to write about his money and his love life. Groupies lurk in hotel hallways. De Ceballos remembers an incident in Paris in 1983 when Ballesteros struck up a conversation with a group of attractive girls at the bar of a hotel. The interlude was lively and clearly enjoyed on both sides. A delighted Ballesteros whispered to de Ceballos, "These girls do not know who I am!"
"For the first time," says de Ceballos, "he realized he could be interesting to a girl, that he had personal charm. He was fascinated, like a boy with a toy. The price of fame is very high sometimes."
Ballesteros has a real girl friend. Not surprisingly, she is someone he has known for several years, someone from home and therefore, by definition, someone he trusts. She is the girl next door, however, only in the sense that her parents own a summer house that is situated on the edge of the Pedre√±a golf course, just visible beyond a hedge from Seve's house. Carmen Botín is the daughter of a banker, one of the richest men in Santander. She and Seve met when she was 16 and taking lessons at the golf club. They are seldom seen together, even in Pedre√±a. This is partly because during the school year she is a student at Brown University in Providence, and partly because Ballesteros is very protective of their privacy. "She has about a 17 handicap," is the only description of her that he is willing to volunteer.
Ballesteros's parents are in comfortable retirement now: Baldomero spends his afternoons in a Pedre√±a bar playing cards with friends; Carmen spends her time visiting neighbors. They tend the vegetable garden beside the house Seve built, and they look after the property when he is away. When Seve is home, Carmen cooks the food that he so misses abroad—aluvias con came y chorizo, lentejas and Spanish omelets that bear no relation to the American mutant of the same name.
As homesick as he gets when he is traveling, Ballesteros does not stay at home for long. "There is not much for me to do in the village," he says. "I have to move around." One day last spring he was driving his green BMW over Pedre√±a's narrow streets and bumpy roads. "This is 24th Avenue," he said of a rutted lane that winds down to the center of the village from his house on the hill. He glanced sideways, mischievously, knowing that his passenger was wondering where the other 23 avenues might be. "And this," he said of a low gray school building with a fenced yard, "is Brown University." He beeped his horn as he passed people. They waved back, or they merely looked up and smiled. It was only Severiano. "Most of the villagers are fishing or farming or working in the factories in Santander," he says. "They are nice people, modest people. The modest people are the best, I think."
The car turned off the main street of the town and onto a rutted road that rises to the top of a hill. Near the top Seve turned right into the yard of the old stone farmhouse where he was born. The walls and the red tile roof were intact but the interior had been gutted and construction work was under way. "This house is Manuel's now," Seve said, leading the way inside. "This is the stable and hay barn. All this used to be cows." Outside, the view from the hillside" is of the bay and the practice range and the clubhouse below. Over the clump of pines, 160 yards away, lies Seve's earliest goal, the green at No. 2. Now, he says, his goal is to win the U.S. Open and the American PGA championship.
As he was backing out of the driveway, a panel truck turned in, and a young man in business clothes got out. Seve jumped out of the car to shake hands with the man. When he returned he said, "It is one of the caddies from my time. I haven't seen him for two years. He sells insurance for houses."
Ballesteros was scheduled to leave Pedre√±a the next day. He would drive to Santander and fly from there to Madrid and from there to New York. He would stop in Providence to see Carmen Botín on the weekend; then he would rejoin the PGA Tour.
"This is my 12th year," he said. "I started when I was 16. When I was beginning, I was enjoying everything so much. It was exciting going on airplanes, being in different places all the time, meeting different people. For two years I was happy just to play. I had nice clubs and enough balls and gloves and shoes. Golf was everything for me. It still is. But after 1976, when I knew I had a good chance to be a champion, that is when I started to have big ambitions. Now, nine years later, it is different. I don't like flying. I'm tired of hotels. It's tough to be alone most of the time and also difficult to live like a little star. People are always coming to you with the same questions. Last year I played in 29 tournaments. I spent 34 weeks away from my house. I made 93 flights, and I spent a total of 11 days inside an airplane. I miss my family, my friends, many things. But I like this way better than the other way around."
The day Ballesteros left Pedre√±a dawned fresh and springlike. The sun shone from a blue sky on the pines and the eucalyptus trees, and the smell of newly cut grass was in the air. A curl of smoke rose from the clubhouse chimney, a rooster crowed in a farmyard somewhere and a man riding a mower sang a Spanish song at the top of his lungs.
"I feel in life anytime you win something, you lose something, too," Ballesteros said. "But if you want something very badly, it compensates."