The caddies of Pedreña, a village beside the Bay of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, played golf with homemade clubs. They reclaimed old, rusted club heads, jammed sticks of wood into the hosels, then soaked them overnight in a bucket of water to make the wood swell to a tight fit. If they were lucky, the clubs lasted two or three days before they broke. Severiano Ballesteros was seven years old when he made his first club. He scoured the fields around the village for sticks and the beach on the edge of the bay for stones the size of golf balls. With these rough tools, Ballesteros began to learn his trade, little knowing that one day he would lead a golfing revolution.
For half a century American golfers have had an overlapping grip on the royal and ancient game of the Scots. Since Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930, the giants of golf have sprung from U.S. soil—Ben Hogan in a Texas caddie yard; Arnold Palmer in a small town in western Pennsylvania; Jack Nicklaus in the Ohio heartland. In between were the likes of Hagen, Sarazen, Nelson, Snead, Trevino, Watson. Decade after decade American talent ran so deep that foreign players rarely left a mark. Only Gary Player, winning nine major championships while shuttling halfway around the world from his farm in South Africa, carved himself a permanent place in a game that had become as American as apple pie and Buckeye football.
Now, however, the boundary markers have been moved. Bern hard Langer, a West German, has won the Masters. TzeChung Chen of Taiwan nearly won the U.S. Open. Denis Watson, a Zimbabwean transplant, was a three-time winner on the PGA Tour last year. And next week Ballesteros, a caddie-genius from that village in Spain, twice a Masters champion, twice a British Open champion, will defend his British title at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England.
The revolution that has changed the face of golf began on July 10, 1976, in the final round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale on the west coast of England, when Ballesteros, 19 years old and win-less outside Spain, hit a brazen little chip shot between two bunkers to the 18th green that electrified everyone who saw it. Watching the telecast 6,000 miles away in Dallas, Lee Trevino let out a whoop and shouted to his wife, "Claudia, come in and watch. This kid has got to be something!"
Driving with abandon, aiming his irons at the pins, rescuing himself from the wrong side of bushes and sand dunes with shots invented for the occasion, Ballesteros had led the tournament for the first three rounds. On the last day, however, his game began to come apart, and by the 7th hole he had lost his lead for good to Johnny Miller.
By rights, Ballesteros should have been shattered. In half a day he had blown his chance to be both the first Spaniard to win a major championship and the youngest British Open winner since Young Tom Morris in 1868. But shattered he was not. From the 13th through the 17th he recovered four of the seven strokes he had lost. He still could not catch Miller, but with a birdie at the par-5 18th, he could tie Jack Nicklaus for second.
Ballesteros tore into his drive, then hit a mighty iron and wound up on a patch of short, scraggly rough in front of the large green. Between him and the pin, which was at the front of the green, lay two bunkers and a mound. A narrow strip of hard ground ran up and over the mound between the bunkers. With a sand wedge he could clear the bunkers, but he might not be able to stop the ball on the green. If he chipped onto the narrow strip, he risked sending the ball veering into one of the bunkers. The wedge meant a safe par; a chip might mean a birdie and a tie with the greatest player of all time.
Using a nine-iron, Ballesteros hit the gentlest of chips. The ball popped up, dropped onto the narrow strip between the bunkers, bounced softly to the crest of the mound and trickled down the other side onto the green, coming to a stop four feet past the hole. He sank the putt.
Nine years later, Seve Ballesteros is as famous as any Spaniard alive, possibly barring Julio Iglesias. American TV announcers have even learned to pronounce his name: bye-yuh-STAY-ros. In Europe he has done for golf what Arnold Palmer did for the game in the U.S. in the '60s. His daring, his 300-yard drives, his barely believable recovery shots, his glowering intensity, his flashing smile, have injected a large measure of excitement into a spectator sport that is often necessarily sedate.
"He's made for this medium," said Frank Hannigan, senior executive director of the USGA, with a sweeping gesture that took in the 27 CBS cameras covering the '85 Masters. "They come in for a close shot and they can't miss. You can see his thought processes. For me he is more fun to watch than any player in the world."