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The golfer who galvanised a sport

Seve Ballesteros at the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale Golf Club - Credit: Getty Images

How Seve Ballesteros hauled golf from its safe, gin-soaked, cliquey complacency into a thrillingly glamorous spectacle

There aren’t many golfers who have played a shot so brilliant, so miraculous even, that a commemorative plaque is installed on the spot, but then there haven’t been many golfers like Seve Ballesteros.

Even at his best it would have been a remarkable shot, but when he arrived at the 1993 European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in the Swiss Alps in September Ballesteros was having a bad year. Not just a dip in form, not just a bad year by his standards, but outright bad, enough to plummet to an unprecedented 71st place in the European Order of Merit.

He made an indifferent start in Switzerland, but by the time he teed off at the 18th on the final round Ballesteros was on the back of five consecutive birdies and racing up the leader board. His chances of catching leader Barry Lane were slim but not out of the question and another birdie would at least be enough to seal second place.

It was a par four, 410 yards, challenging enough, but when Ballesteros swung his three wood from the tee the ball veered and dipped right, coming to rest among pine trees 130 feet from the hole. That wasn’t his biggest problem though. His biggest problem was the 8ft wall a few feet away, between his ball and the green.

Caddy Billy Foster saw the obvious way out – chip the ball sideways, put himself back onto the fairway, next shot onto the green and a good chance of making par. Ballesteros pursed his lips, dropped to his haunches and looked up. There’s a gap, he told Foster. The gap was an opening between the branches no bigger than a dinner plate: hit the ball hard enough through that and he’d clear the wall and have a chance of making the green. Foster thought it was lunacy.

“Why?” snapped Ballesteros “Why I listen to you? Why you put doubt in my mind? You are the caddy. Carry the clubs. I’m the player.”

Ballesteros selected a pitching wedge and addressed the ball. He looked up at the opening in the foliage almost vertically above him, looked down at the ball, exhaled, and swung hard.

It was this kind of raffish self-belief and willingness to attempt the impossible that saw Ballesteros win 87 tournaments including three Opens and two Masters. But his place in golf’s pantheon is about more than trophies and statistics. Seve Ballesteros brought such panache and charisma to golf, as well as an almost unprecedented talent, he changed the entire face of the sport. He hauled the European game from safe, gin-soaked, cliquey complacency into a thrillingly glamorous spectacle. Dragging Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle with him, Ballesteros turned the Ryder Cup into a proper competition worthy of a global audience rather than the cheery foregone conclusion it had become. The Ryder Cup is a major event in the sporting calendar today, a decade after his death and much longer since his peak years, largely because Ballesteros turned it into one.

He exploded onto the scene at the age of 19, taking the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale by the scruff of the neck and leading it for the first three days until older, more experienced heads caught up on the final round. The teenager still tied for second place with the great Jack Nicklaus and saved arguably his best shot of the tournament until the last hole, a daring chip from a tricky lie that ran perfectly along a narrow strip of grass between two bunkers and onto the green. Watching at home in the US, Lee Trevino leapt out of his seat, cheering the youngster’s audacious brilliance.

Three years later at Royal Lytham and St Annes the claret jug was his, clinched in typically unconventional style: of the 72 holes Ballesteros only hit the fairway from the tee nine times. Most famously of all, at the par four 16th hole on the final round he managed to drive his ball into a temporary car park. A 90ft pitch with a sand wedge not only got him out from among the Ford Granadas and Austin Allegros, it left him just 20ft from the flag. He sank the putt to retain his three-stroke lead with two holes to play.

On that day at Crans-sur-Sierre in 1993, there was a puff of dust as the ball rocketed into the clean Swiss mountain air, shot through the tiny gap between the foliage, cleared the wall, and dropped onto the fairway barely three feet from the edge of the green, 30 feet from the flag. To the spectators it must have appeared as if the ball had landed from outer space. In golf terms it effectively had, a shot he had no right to even attempt let alone pull off.

For Ballesteros, however, the job was only half done. Between the pin and the ball was the edge of a bunker. A low chip cleared the sand, the ball bounced a couple of times on the green, ran to the left of the flag, then at the last moment gently curled around and dropped into the hole. A sixth consecutive birdie from two consecutive shots pulled from the far side of genius. The Spaniard roared in triumph, roundhouse punching the air.

While it looked as if Ballesteros was returning to the top of his game, the failures of 1993 only presaged the decline to come. The bad back that had always been an issue became a much bigger problem but was only one factor in a decline startling in its rapidity. Between 1976 and 1992 Ballesteros was never outside the top 20 in the Order of Merit; between 1996 and 2001 he never once made it into the top 100.

Watching a sporting genius go into decline is never easy. It’s also unimaginable for mere mortals to experience. For the best in the world the realisation that you’re anything less must be crushing. When self-belief and hope are no longer enough to fuel the body, a waning of greatness played out in public is as heartbreaking as it is humiliating.

Ballesteros had never been short of confidence or a firm belief in the financial worth of his talent. It led him into clashes with authority as early as 1981 when he was left out of the European Ryder Cup team after disagreements over appearance money. In 2003 at the Madeira Island Open he was penalised one shot for slow play but refused to accept the penalty, changing the score on his card at the end of the round and earning a fine as well as a severe reprimand.

There were back operations and repeated talks of comebacks but in the years leading up to his retirement in 2007 he was a shadow of the brilliant player that had transformed an entire sport. The beaming smile that rounded his cheeks was rarely seen as his once-youthful features became drawn and gaunt.

“I miss the feeling of being in contention,” he said in a rare candid moment during the early 2000s. “I still know how to play, I just can’t hit the ball.”

A year after retiring he collapsed at Madrid airport and was diagnosed with a brain tumour. There were operations and chemotherapy and even occasional hints at a comeback, but three years on from his diagnosis and four weeks after his 54th birthday Ballesteros died in a Madrid hospital.

“I wish there was a tape of all the shots he hit,” said his friend and Ryder Cup teammate José María Olazábal. “Then we would really know how special he was. He was the one who broke down all the barriers, all the walls. He made the rest of the players of his time believe they could play all over the world. I don’t think anyone comes close to him.”

The plaque at Crans-sur-Sierre is possibly the only one in the world dedicated to a single golf shot, but it’s about more than a puff of dust and a ball landing one chip from the flag. Yes, it’s about the audacity, swagger and self-belief required to pull it off, but it’s also about innocence. It takes an innate lack of cynicism to attempt something so outlandish, a faith in providence as much as one’s own ability. It was a shot forged on the beach at Pedreña, the fishing village on the northern coast of the Basque Country where the youngest of four golfing brothers would leave the cramped family home over a barn where they kept their cows, dragging a cut-down three iron behind him, spending endless hours hitting pebbles until the sun set over the Atlantic and he could hit them at the moon instead.