(Reuters) – Renowned for audacious shot making, and an infectious smile twinned with a fierce competitive edge, Seve Ballesteros revolutionised golf in Europe and remains one of the most captivating figures in the game even nine years since passing away.
The son of a farmer, the Spaniard honed his skills on the beaches of Santander by hitting stones with sticks before taking the sport by storm aged 19 at the 1976 British Open, leading the tournament for three days before coming second.
He delivered an even more impressive performance at the Open three years later to win the first of five majors in the space of nine years, his show-stopping moment coming when he birdied on the 17th hole despite teeing off into a row of parked cars.
That escape act earned him the nickname ‘the Car Park Champion’ and cemented his reputation for outlandish shots which Ben Crenshaw summed up by saying “Seve plays shots I don’t even see in my dreams”.
Jack Nicklaus, a winner of a record 18 majors, would later claim Ballesteros was responsible for the greatest shot he had ever seen, a 210-metre three wood from a bunker at the 1983 Ryder Cup.
Ballesteros overtook Nicklaus as the youngest ever winner of the Masters in 1980, also becoming the first European player to win the tournament, although his most famous win came back in Britain at the competition that launched his career.
His final putt at the 1984 Open clinched victory after a tense battle with Tom Watson and sparked one of the most iconic celebrations in sport, Ballesteros relentlessly punching the air while shouting in Spanish “I got it in”.
The celebrations from the crowd were no less wild, which spoke of his popularity.
Ballesteros could not please everyone, though, making enemies with a series of American opponents in the Ryder Cup, a tournament he helped transform from a one-sided event into one of sport’s greatest spectacles.
Paul Azinger labelled the Spaniard “the king of gamesmanship” after a dispute over a scuffed ball in the 1991 tournament. Ballesteros bit back by remarking “The American team has 11 nice guys. And Paul Azinger.”
Azinger’s partner Chip Beck meanwhile accused Ballesteros of coughing during his backswing. The Spaniard’s defence that he had allergies convinced no-one.
Ballesteros helped Europe win five Ryder Cups, his crowning glory coming when he captained the team to victory in 1997 on home soil, roaring encouragement to his charges as he whizzed across the Valderrama course on a golf cart.
“He believed anything was possible. He constantly shocked me,” team mate and compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal said after Ballesteros’ untimely death in 2011 after a three-year battle with brain cancer.
“No one has ever made a bigger contribution to the European Tour. He was the one who broke down all the barriers, all the walls.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin)