The life and times of Seve Ballesteros

A biography of Seve Ballesteros, one of golf's most exciting ever players
© Jerry Coli |

Beginning in the late 1970s and stretching through the 1980s, Seve Ballesteros was one of the most exciting professional golfers in the world. Born in Spain, Seve fell in love with the game at the age of 8 when an older brother gave him a 3-iron to hit around the local beaches’ shore near his home.

After turning pro at the age of 16, Ballesteros made his splash upon the world stage three years later at the 1976 Open Championship with a second place finish. Ballesteros led at the end of each of the first three rounds but Johnny Miller’s final round 66 left the Spaniard tied with runner-up with Jack Nicklaus.

Despite the early setback, Ballesteros built a long and storied career with five major wins, a stellar record in international competitions like the Ryder Cup and won hearts all over the world with his talent and passion for the game. When he died in 2011 at the age of 54, due to long battle with a cancerous brain tumor, Ballesteros was commended by fellow golfers such as Tiger Woods who praised Seve’s artistry under challenging situations around the course. “Seve was one of the most talented and exciting golfers to ever play the game,” Woods said upon hearing the news of Ballesteros’ passing. “His creativity and inventiveness on the golf course may never be surpassed. His death came much too soon.”

Seve Ballesteros biography


On April 9, 1957, in Pedreña, a small fishing village that rests alongside the Bay of Biscay, Severiano Ballesteros became the youngest of five sons to Baldomero Ballesteros, a dairy farmer.

Seve’s childhood included tragedy as he lost one of his older brothers due to a terrible wasp incident. The remaining three brothers would all become professional golfers, an astounding fact considering the poverty of Ballesteros’ family.

Considered a terrific athlete as he grew, Seve found himself drawn to the Real Pedreña golf course that was close to his family’s farmland. Since the Ballesteros family couldn’t afford a club membership, Seve and his brothers would sneak onto the course after dark to hone their skills.

Soon, Seve worked at the club as a caddie. At the age of 12, Seve won the Real Pedreña caddie championship allowing him more access to the course during the day. The win sent his training to a new level as Ballesteros was given access to the course during the day. No longer would he need to sneak around for practice, instead Ballesteros hit over 1,000 balls a day in that time at Real Pedreña.

Turning pro

Seve turned professional at the age of 16. In his first year on tour, Seve made over $100,000 and only missed one cut. At the age of 19, Ballesteros became a household name across Europe when he faced down American legends Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller to almost win the 1976 Open Championship.

“It was his creativity, his imagination, and his desire to compete that made him so popular not only in Europe but throughout American galleries, too,” Jack Nicklaus said. “(Seve) was a great entertainer. No matter the golf that particular day, you always knew you were going to be entertained. Seve’s enthusiasm was just unmatched by anybody I think that ever played the game.”

The five major wins

After setting the golf world on fire with his performance in the 1976 Open Championship, Ballesteros continued to win across the globe. In 1979, Ballesteros won the first major of his career, The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s. He was the first continental European professional golfer to win the title since 1907.

A mere nine months after his first major victory, Ballesteros traveled to America to claim his second major title. On his fourth career trip to the hallowed grounds at Augusta, Ballesteros became the first European and the youngest player ever to win the Masters. (A record that would fall when Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997.)

The four-stroke victory brought Seve $55,000 in prize money and a bit of controversy. When other professionals began to remark that the conditions at the 1980 Masters favored Ballesteros, the Spaniard famously said, “I win on narrow courses, I win on open courses. I win when it’s wet and I win when it’s dry. I win when it’s windy and I win when it’s calm. Still they say I am lucky.” Three years later, Ballesteros would top Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite by four strokes for his second Masters title.

In 1984, Ballesteros put together his most famous major championship performance. Hovering around the leaders all week, Seve finally took control in the final round of the ’84 Open Championship at St. Andrews. The Spaniard posted a Sunday 69 and watched as Tom Watson faltered down the stretch. His two-shot victory was punctuated with a 15-foot birdie putt on the famous 18th hole. Ballesteros’ celebration, after the putt rolled into the cup along the right edge, is one of the most iconic moments in Open history. A smiling Ballesteros pumping his fist as he turned to the crowd in triumph was the defining image of his career.

The following month, Seve won the 1984 PGA Championship. His final major title came in the 1988 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s, site of his first Open win in 1979.

A chronic bad back forced Ballesteros to slow down his schedule, fully retiring from all competition in 2007. “From the start, from a very early age, I played the game because I loved it,” Ballesteros said. “I never played because I wanted to become professional, make a lot of money, have a big house and drive a Ferrari. It was all because I enjoyed doing it.”

Ryder Cup

Partnered with José María Olazábal, Ballesteros became one of the most prolific Ryder Cup players in the 1980s and 1990s. The duo participated together in 15 matches, winning a staggering 11 matchups while halving two of the remaining four. The dominant performance by the two-some led Europe to Ryder Cup wins over the United States in 1985 and 1987. In 1989, Ballesteros helped the European side to a draw allowing team Europe to retain the Cup.

After playing on the European squad that won the Ryder Cup in 1995, Ballesteros was asked to captain the 1997 team. The event, held at Valderrama Golf Club in his homeland of Spain, became one of Ballesteros’ proudest moments. After vaulting to a 10.5 to 5.5 lead, Europe held on for a one-point victory after the singles matches on Sunday. Ballesteros called the win at Valderrama, the “greatest achievement” of his career.

Untimely death

Two years after his retirement, Ballesteros was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. After four separate surgeries to remove the tumor and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Ballesteros declared that it was a “miracle” to be alive.

In the twilight of his life, Ballesteros began the Seve Ballesteros Foundation to help others going through cancer treatment. At his home near the Real Pedreña golf club, the same club he snuck onto as a child, Seve spent time on the range, hitting dozens of golf balls day after day.

Complications from cancer led to the deterioration of Ballesteros’ health in early 2011. The five-time major winner passed away in the early hours of May 6th, 2011.

As word of his death spread through the golfing world, many that competed against Seve shared their affection for the man known as the father of European golf.

“I loved the expressive way (Seve) played, like Arnold Palmer,” Ben Crenshaw told Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz. “When he did well, he showed it in a beautiful, proud way. When he failed, he did it with so much heart that people would feel for him. When he won at St. Andrews (in 1984), that’s one of the great reactions in the history of the game.”

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