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The Joy of Seve
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How brilliant Ballesteros captured our hearts
A smiling Seve Ballesteros at Royal Birkdale in 1976

Results alone would be enough to secure Seve Ballesteros a place among the pantheon of golfing greats.

Three times a Champion Golfer of the Year at The Open, Ballesteros also won the Masters twice and played a key role in revitalising the Ryder Cup as he enjoyed a host of individual and collective triumphs in the biennial event.

Five World Match Play crowns and a record haul of 50 European Tour titles represented further highlights in a truly stellar career.

However, a simple list of victories and statistical achievements cannot come close to doing justice to the Spaniard’s impact on the world of golf.

The primary attraction of sport is its capacity to provoke intense emotions. And the true glory of Seve lies in how he made us feel.

To mark the 10-year anniversary of his passing, we look at how Seve captured the hearts of millions and provided so many unforgettable memories.

Official Film | The 105th Open | Royal Birkdale 1976

From the moment he burst on to the global stage in The Open Championship of 1976 at Royal Birkdale, Seve Ballesteros demanded attention.

It was remarkable enough that a 19-year-old, playing in The Open for only the second time, led after each of the first three rounds and threatened to pull off the most unlikely of victories at golf’s original Championship.

Yet Seve did all this with a style and swagger that immediately marked him out as a superstar in the making, thrilling the galleries with his flamboyant swing and exhibitions of artistry and invention around the greens.

If the Birkdale crowds were fascinated by the fearless exploits of the teenager, who had an off-duty policeman as his caddie that week, they were not alone.

Johnny Miller, an established star and major champion who had grown accustomed to competing with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, found himself captivated by his playing partner for the third and fourth rounds.

“He was getting big headlines - a good-looking guy, flashy, an interesting follow-through, and just sort of a dashing player,” said Miller in his Chronicles of a Champion Golfer film.

“He was like a breath of fresh air, and I was sort of caught up in really watching him.”

Johnny Miller watches Seve Ballesteros play from the rough at Royal Birkdale

Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros at Royal Birkdale in 1976

Miller ultimately prevailed with a degree of comfort in 1976, surging to a six-shot victory on the final day courtesy of a superb 66. Yet the Championship would come to be remembered just as much for the performance of Seve, who ended his breakthrough week in fittingly memorable fashion.

Having eagled the 17th, Ballesteros played the cheekiest of chips between two greenside bunkers at the 18th to draw gasps of joy from the crowd and secure a closing birdie that earned a share of second place alongside Nicklaus.

Golf had its newest hero, and he was only just getting started.

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Over the years that followed, Seve firmly established himself as an iconic and inspirational figure, one who transcended his sport and broadened its appeal in the process.

Although his successes were plentiful, there was just as much to admire in Ballesteros’ charisma and bold approach to the game.

Audacious recoveries, such as his famous birdie from an overspill car park at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1979 as he won The Open for the first time, became his trademark. As a result, fans were understandably attracted to a player whose imagination and creativity on a golf course appeared to have no limits.

Official Film | The 108th Open | Royal Lytham & St Annes 1979

His unique talent was perhaps best summed up by fellow two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw, who once stated: “Seve plays shots I don’t even see in my dreams.”

And it is no surprise that Phil Mickelson, one of the great crowd-pleasers of his generation, cites Seve among the biggest influences on his career.

“He was just exciting to watch,” said Mickelson. “He always had that go-for-broke attitude.

“Seve’s approach is exactly what I loved about Seve. I loved the recovery shots. Nobody had more of them and nobody pulled them off more than Seve.

“Because of the way he played the game of golf, you were drawn to him. You wanted to go watch him play.”

Like so many others, Mickelson has particularly fond memories of The Open at St Andrews in 1984, when Ballesteros enjoyed his finest hour by pipping defending Champion Tom Watson to glory in a fascinating back-nine tussle.

While Seve was already an immensely popular figure ahead of the Championship, the manner of his victory at the Home of Golf – and those jubilant scenes on the 18th green - emphatically cemented his status as a fan favourite.

Seve would go on to describe his fist-pumping reaction to his final putt as the “happiest moment of my whole sporting life”. By displaying his blissful emotions in such eye-catching fashion on the Old Course, he also brought considerable pleasure to others.

“When Seve was in a good mood, the world was happy,” declared the late, great Peter Alliss.

Seve Ballesteros celebrates his winning putt at St Andrews in 1984

That iconic celebration on the 18th green at St Andrews

Seve’s magnetic smile may have made headlines in 1984, but his success at St Andrews also owed much to a fierce determination and fighting spirit that underpinned his rapid rise to stardom.

Born and raised in humble surroundings in the village of Pedrena in northern Spain, the golf-loving Ballesteros had to demonstrate creativity and tenacity to pursue his childhood passion.

At the age of seven, he got hold of his first golfing equipment, an old club head to which he attached a succession of sticks as makeshift shafts.

“People get very upset when they lose balls,” wrote Ballesteros in his autobiography. “But imagine what it’s like losing a club all the time, for the shafts rarely survived more than a day.”

As a young caddie at the Royal Golf Club of Pedrena, Seve was seldom allowed to play on the course, yet that did not stop him from devoting countless hours to improving his game.

He would often sneak on to the course at night, while much of his practice took place in unconventional locations, such as the local beach.

“I even made a little course in the field behind our house, with a tomato tin for the hole and a handkerchief on a stick for a flag,” he explained.

“I spent hours and hours practicing between the ages of nine and 15. If my short game was outstanding it is because during those years I practiced approach shots and putts all the time. I even hung up a fishing net in the stables at home so I could hit balls at it late into the night.”

Seve Ballesteros recreates his childhood memories of playing on a beach

Seve recreates his childhood memories of playing on the beach

Just as Ballesteros’ short-game prowess owed much to his extraordinary dedication as a youngster, the drive and courage he showed in breaking new ground for European golf can also be linked to his formative experiences.

Growing up, Seve did not have things easy and he only reached the professional ranks – at the age of 16 – through an unparalleled desire to be the best.

That burning ambition remained clear for all to see as his profile and status grew, and Ballesteros became an ever more alluring figure for European golf fans familiar with American dominance of the biggest events.

In the 10 years that preceded Seve’s victory at Lytham in 1979, players from the United States had claimed 34 of the 40 available major titles, with South Africa’s Gary Player and England’s Tony Jacklin the only others to prevail.

However, having battled so hard throughout his youth to progress his golf career by any means necessary, regardless of the lack of resources available to him, Ballesteros was certainly not daunted by the prospect of conquering a new challenge.

In between his first two Open victories, his successes at the Masters in 1980 and 1983 represented hugely significant landmarks that opened the floodgates for a golden era of European triumphs at Augusta National.

No player from Europe had won the Masters prior to Seve, but his efforts seemed to convince his peers they could follow where he had led.

Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal all earned green jackets of their own between 1985 and 1994, with Lyle and Faldo also enjoying victories at The Open.

Sandy Lyle celebrates his Open victory at Royal St George's

Sandy Lyle was among the European stars to follow in Seve's footsteps

After years of meagre returns at golf’s top table, Europe now boasted several major stars who could compete with and beat America’s best.

The influence of Seve, who continued to charm and intrigue crowds, could be clearly seen, but his impact in another area was even more transformative.

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By the time he claimed his fourth major in such iconic circumstances at St Andrews, Seve was among the most compelling characters in sport.

The rich potential he had shown eight years earlier at Royal Birkdale had been delivered upon in style. In achieving sustained success at the highest level, he had showcased his full range of abilities – an intoxicating mix of skill, panache and grit that made him an irresistible presence.

Nevertheless, there was still one more peak for the fiercely motivated Spaniard to scale, one which would have a defining impact on his legacy.

Ballesteros had already made Ryder Cup history alongside compatriot Antonio Garrido in 1979, when the pair became the first men from Continental Europe to play in the event. Only one team from Great Britain and Ireland had beaten the United States in the 13 matches that had followed the Second World War and it was hoped the addition of European players would bring about a more competitive contest.

The European Ryder Cup team in 1979

Ballesteros (fourth from right) and the rest of Europe's 1979 Ryder Cup team

The initial signs were not hugely positive. Ballesteros and Garrido could not prevent a 17-11 defeat on their debuts at The Greenbrier and a dispute with the European Tour meant Seve was controversially excluded from the event two years later as the USA cantered to a nine-point triumph at Walton Heath.

At that point, few could have predicted the turnaround in fortunes that would breathe new life into the Ryder Cup and elevate Seve’s standing to even greater heights.

Having been convinced to return to the team by Tony Jacklin despite his anger at the disagreement that had ruled him out in 1981, Ballesteros proved the driving force behind a spectacular revival.

Seve had never once lacked belief in his own ability, but the confidence of the entire European team was given a decisive boost in 1983 when they came close to beating the USA on American soil at PGA National.

Although they lost by a single point on that occasion, Jacklin’s men finally had evidence they were capable of matching their rivals. What is more, they boasted an obvious trump card in Seve, who delivered three points and pulled off one of his most miraculous shots with a scarcely believable 3-wood from a fairway bunker that enabled him to claim a final-day half against Fuzzy Zoeller.

That staggering stroke, which was regrettably missed by the television cameras, typified Ballesteros’ contribution to Ryder Cup contests. Here was a man who could never accept he was beaten and had the talent to back up his convictions, qualities that made him ideally suited to the competition’s format.

Crucially, his belief, determination and positivity also rubbed off on others. With a fired-up Seve once more demonstrating his love for a battle, Europe were an altogether different proposition and they duly claimed historic victories in 1985 and 1987 before retaining the Cup with a tie in 1989.

Seve Ballesteros and Tony Jacklin at the 1987 Ryder Cup

Seve and European captain Tony Jacklin celebrate in 1987

Even when the US eventually hit back at Kiawah Island in 1991, they had to contend with a virtuoso performance from Europe’s talisman, who won four of his five matches and halved the other.

Ballesteros ultimately lifted the Ryder Cup five times as a player and once as an ultra-enthused captain in 1997 at Valderrama, where his exhaustingly thorough approach caught the eye.

At that stage, debilitating back injuries had taken their toll. Nine years on from his fifth and final major victory – another magical Open success at Royal Lytham & St Annes – Seve was no longer able to contend for major honours, but his tireless efforts on Spanish soil showed he remained as enchanting and inspirational as ever.

Poignantly, Ballesteros’ presence would again be felt keenly at the Ryder Cup in 2012, sixteen months after news of his death at the age of 54 had shocked and saddened the sporting world.

Jose Maria Olazabal – Seve’s greatest partner in matches against the United States – was at the helm at Medinah as Europe pulled off a remarkable comeback from 10-6 down on the final day. After one of the most dramatic Ryder Cups of all time, an emotional tribute followed from the victorious captain.

“Our team played in the spirit of Seve without ever giving up,” said Olazabal, who teamed up with Ballesteros to record a record-breaking haul of 12 points from 15 Ryder Cup matches between 1987 and 1993.

“Seve will always be present with this team.”

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Ten years on from his passing, Seve undoubtedly remains an uplifting presence in the minds of countless golf lovers who were fortunate enough to witness his greatness.

Precious few sportspeople have achieved the level of success he was able to enjoy, but even fewer have commanded as much affection or inspired quite so many of their peers.

During his glorious years at the pinnacle of his sport, Seve won trophies aplenty, motivated others to do likewise and did more than anyone to revitalise one of golf’s most important and iconic events.

Yet above all else, he made people happy. There can be no greater legacy.

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