CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Seve Ballesteros first showed off his magic to a worldwide audience as a 19-year-old at the British Open, playing with touch and imagination, bouncing shots between bunkers and finishing second to Johnny Miller.
Five years later, Ballesteros gave Miller another lasting impression.
It was 1981, the inaugural Million Dollar Challenge in South Africa, with a $500,000 first prize that dwarfed anything else in the world. The two were tied after regulation and went into a sudden-death playoff.
“The first extra hole, I take it right over the flag to about 6 feet,” Miller recalled during a phone interview Saturday from his ranch in Utah. “He takes out a 6-iron and takes it over the water and it hangs on the lip.”
The playoff went nine holes before Ballesteros blinked with a three-putt bogey. Miller said the Spaniard’s brother told him later that Ballesteros cried for the next two hours.
“You could see how much the guy cared about winning,” Miller said, hours after learning that his rival and five-time major champion had died at age 54 from a cancerous brain tumor.
“That’s the reason he was so attractive to watch,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit like Tiger. He just wanted it so bad. He never did anything lackadaisical.”
Jack Nicklaus said Ballesteros’ enthusiasm was unlike that of any other player, and his imagination also was without comparison.
“I have watched him play 1-irons out of greenside bunkers when just fooling around,” Nicklaus said. “He could do anything with a golf club and a golf ball.”
Hale Irwin played with Ballesteros in the final round of the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham, famous for Ballesteros making birdie from the parking lot. Irwin said the Spaniard hit just three fairways in the final round and still won his first major.
“It wasn’t because he was lucky,” Irwin said. “It was because he created some shots that were unbelievable. As sad as I was, I look back and scratch my head and say, ‘How does he do it?’ It wasn’t an accident or lucky. It was a skill factor he had.”
The skill was undeniable. Ballesteros once said he would rank himself among the top 15 players of all time. Among Europeans, Harry Vardon and Nick Faldo have won more majors, and Bernhard Langer has played in more Ryder Cups.
Padraig Harrington suggested that an image of Ballesteros – perhaps his celebration upon winning at St. Andrews in 1984 – become the logo of the European Tour. Ernie Els referred to him as an iconic figure, the flag bearer for Europe.
“He opened up so many doors for Europe’s players by winning all over the world, and particularly in America,” the South African said. “The European Tour would not be what it is today without him.”
Ballesteros’ strategy might best be explained through what some consider the greatest shot he hit, the top of a long list.
His tee shot had landed near a swimming pool. He was blocked by a 7-foot wall in front of him, trees everywhere. His caddie, Billy Foster, suggested he pitch to the fairway. Ballesteros saw a tiny gap – no one else would have noticed it – opened the blade of his pitching wedge and went over the trees, ending up just short of the green. He chipped in for birdie.
“I like to keep going forward,” Ballesteros said.