Seve Ballesteros: Remembering the Spanish Golf Giant

Seve Ballesteros of Spain celebrates on the 18th fairway on his way to victory in the British Open at Royal Lytham St Annes in Lancashire, England in 1979
Seve Ballesteros makes his way up the 18th hole en route to winning the 1979 British Open. Steve Powell/Getty Images

Severiano "Seve" Ballesteros brought flash and dazzle to European golf when he emerged from Spain onto the worldwide scene at age 19 in 1976. He was called "the European Arnold Palmer," and his short-game skill and aggressiveness on the golf course helped revitalize both the European Tour and the Ryder Cup.

Creativity, imagination and short-game brilliance were the hallmarks of Ballesteros' game. He might miss the fairway off the tee, but at his best, it rarely hurt him. He even made birdie after playing from a parking lot during his 1979 British Open win.

Ballesteros won dozens of times on the European Tour in his career, along with five major championships. But he was cut down before his time by a deadly disease.

Seve By the Numbers

Golfer Seve Ballesteros pictured in 1977.
Seve Ballesteros in 1977. Brian Morgan/Getty Images
  • Date of birth: April 9, 1957
  • Place of birth: Pedrena, Spain
  • Date of death: May 7, 2011

Tour Victories

  • PGA Tour: 9
  • European Tour: 50
  • Major Championships: 5

Ballesteros won the British Open three times (in 1979, 1984 and 1988) and The Masters twice (in 1980 and 1983).

Awards and Honors for Seve Ballesteros

Seve Ballesteros Spanish professional golfer, winner of 1980 Masters tournament, wearing green coat.
Seve Ballesteros receiving the Green Jacket from Fuzzy Zoeller after winning the 1980 Masters. Bettmann/Getty Images
  • Member, World Golf Hall of Fame
  • Named European Player of the Century in 2000
  • Named Spanish Sportsman of the Century in 2000
  • European Tour Player of the Year, 1985, 1988, 1991
  • European Tour money leader, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1986, 1988, 1991
  • Member, Europe Ryder Cup team, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995
  • Captain, European team, 1997 Ryder Cup

Ballesteros' Early Years in Golf

Seve Ballesteros competing in the European Open at Sunningdale Golf Club, Berkshire, 1983
Seve Ballesteros in 1983. David Cannon/Getty Images

Ballesteros grew up in a golfing family. His three brothers were golf pros; an uncle, Ramon Sota, finished 6th at the 1965 Masters. Ballesteros learned golf at age seven using a cut-down 3-iron; by 13, he was winning events and shooting 65.

He turned pro in 1974, just 16 years old, and won the Spanish Professionals Championship that year. In 1976, he won five times on the European Tour and claimed the money title. He made up four shots on Arnold Palmer at the Lancome Trophy to get the victory; at the British Open, the 19-year-old chased Johnny Miller to the finish before settling for second.

During one stretch of 1978, Ballesteros won six consecutive weeks on three different continents. In 1979, the first of his five wins in majors came at the British Open. He won his next major played, the Masters, but was disqualified from the 1980 U.S. Open when he was late for his tee time.

Glory in the 1980s

Nick Price of Zimbabwe looks on as Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros (left) celebrates his final putt on the 18th green during the Open Championship at the Royal Lytham and St Annes Golf Club, July 1988
Seve Ballesteros celebrates the final putt in his victory at the 1988 British Open. Getty Images

Controversy and success went hand in hand with Ballesteros. In 1981, he was voted off the European Ryder Cup team for playing too much in America. Then a dispute with the U.S. PGA Tour over playing commitments — Seve wanted to play part-time in America; the Tour said all-or-nothing — led to Ballesteros remaining in Europe full-time.

Ballesteros dominated the European Tour for much of the 1980s, and led Europe to its first big wins in the Ryder Cup during that decade.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Ballesteros' driving became more erratic. His final win on the European Tour was in 1995 at the Spanish Masters. Seve played more and more sparingly after that, nearly ceasing competitive golf after around 2003. He played briefly on the Champions Tour in 2007 before announcing his retirement.

Seve Ballesteros at the Ryder Cup

Seve Ballesteros of the European team during the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England
Seve Ballesteros during the 1989 Ryder Cup. Bob Martin/Getty Images

In eight Ryder Cup appearances, Ballesteros compiled a 20-12-5 record. In foursomes and fourballs, Ballesteros was often paired with fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal. The "Spanish Armada," as the team was called, became the most successful pairing in Ryder Cup history, going 11-2-2. The team's 12 points earned is double the points of the next-most successful Ryder Cup pairing.

Arguably Europe's most important Ryder Cup victory happened in 1987, when Europe defeated Team USA at Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club, and with Nicklaus serving as team captain. Ballesteros helped lead that team, which won for the very first time on U.S. soil.

In 1997, Ballesteros served as Team Europe captain and the Ryder Cup was played at Valderrama in Spain, the first time it was played in Continental Europe. And Seve guided his team to victory.

Ballesteros' Illness and Cause of Death

Seve Ballesteros pictured in 2001
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Late in 2008 Ballesteros was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which was removed in several long surgeries. More surgeries and treatment continued in the ensuing years, but Ballesteros died of the cancer and its effects on May 7, 2011, at age 54.

Seve Ballesteros Trivia

Severiano Ballesteros takes a shot at the St Mellion International Resort, Cornwall, 1991
Seve Ballesteros hit a drive in 1991. David Cannon/Getty Images
  • The Seve Trophy, introduced in 2000, was a Ryder Cup-style event that pitted teams representing Continental Europe and Great Britain/Ireland. It was conceived by Ballesteros as a training ground for the Ryder Cup. The trophy bore a miniature figure of Ballesteros. The Seve Trophy was played eight times, the last time in 2013.
  • Ballesteros was the leader in the final round of the 1986 Masters before he hit into water on the 15th hole and was ultimately passed by Jack Nicklaus' famous charge. Seve finished fourth.
  • Seve's 50 wins https://www.thoughtco.com/bernhard-langer-profile-1563699is the record for most victories on the European Tour. Bernhard Langer is second with 42.

Quote, Unquote

Seve Ballesteros in 1996.
David Cannon/Getty Images
  • "I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.' " — Ballesteros
  • Tom Kite: "When he gets going, it's almost as if Seve is driving a Ferrari and the rest of us are in Chevrolets."
  • Lee Trevino: "Every generation or so there emerges a golfer who is a little bit better than anybody else. I believe Ballesteros is one of them."
  • Ben Crenshaw: "Seve plays shots I don't even see in my dreams."