Golf: Seve Ballesteros’ 1979 Open victory was a triumph of panache
GREAT, good and not-so-good things have all happened at Royal Lytham, where this week the Open Championship returns for the 11th time in its 152-year history.
Back in 1926, the immortal Bobby Jones struck one of the event’s most memorable shots, blind across a sea of sand and foliage to the distant 17th green. In 1969, Tony Jacklin became the first British player in 18 years to win the game’s most important championship. And, five years later, South African Gary Player became the “champion golfer of the year” for the third and most controversial time in his career; arguments rage still about the identity of the ball Player eventually found in the rough left of the penultimate green.But perhaps the most momentous, important and iconic Open ever played on the Lancashire links that is actually two miles from the sea came in 1979. A decade on from Jacklin’s oasis of success, the late Seve Ballesteros set off what would become an avalanche of European championship victories when he hoisted the Claret Jug skyward for the first of what would eventually be three times.
“Seve winning was huge,” says former Ryder Cup skipper Mark James, who would finish tied for fourth in ’79. “He showed the way for others to follow. It was no real surprise, though. Those of us who saw him play in 1977 and ’78 knew that it wasn’t only possible that he would win majors but almost odds-on. And when he did, it was brilliant for European golf. He was an incredible player.”
Still, the ’79 Open is a tournament that a churlish America continues to label “the car park championship”, so called because of the tee shot the mercurial Spaniard struck off the 16th tee on a blustery final day. Landing well right of the fairway, the ball finished under a stationary vehicle, in what was, temporarily at least, a car park. Given a free drop, Ballesteros pitched on to around 20ft and made the putt for what was all but the clinching birdie. By the 18th, Seve’s playing partner that day, then US Open champion Hale Irwin, was waving a white handkerchief in mock surrender, such had been the brilliance of the Ballesteros recovery play.
“Seve’s performance on the last day was unbelievable,” says Irwin, three times a winner of America’s national championship. “I just couldn’t fathom that you hit that many balls that far off line and still win a great championship. Especially at Lytham, which has a lot of ‘stuff’ you can hit into. I can still see him in the car park at the 16th. I couldn’t believe they had keys to all those cars. Plus, most car parks I’ve ever been in have been out-of-bounds.
“He hit a number of shots like that. I think he hit three fairways that day; something like that. His driver was almost completely uncooperative. But he just kept escaping all the pot bunkers and the shrubbery. Wherever the real trouble was, he didn’t go. And it continued hole after hole. I had to keep pinching myself to remind me whom I was playing with. Seve had a history of playing just like that, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.”
Three rounds earlier, however, it wasn’t Irwin or Ballesteros who seized the headlines. On day one of the championship, those belonged to a relatively unknown Scotsman by way of Essex – he is a former ‘Mister Basildon’ – Bill Longmuir. Now playing the European Senior Tour, Longmuir even today shakes his head at how many people still ask him about the 65 he shot to lead the Open.
“Not surprisingly, my opening round has stayed with me over the years,” he says with a characteristic smile. “It is a great memory to have. But I must admit it looked unlikely even when I was warming up on the range. I was hitting everything left. Noel Ratcliffe was hitting next to me. He asked me how I was playing. So I told him, to which he replied: ‘Try and keep your left shoulder higher on the backswing.’
“Back then, like almost everyone else, I played almost exclusively on feel. Very few of us knew anything about the mechanics of the swing. But I had nothing to lose. So I gave it a try. Suddenly I was hitting the ball straight and a lot longer. It was an almost instant transformation.”
Indeed it was. In a near gale that would see only a handful of players break 70, Longmuir reached the turn in an astonishing 29 shots. Then he made another birdie at the tenth. And another at the short 12th, where he rifled a 3-iron through the wind to only inches from the flag. “Walking up the 13th, I looked at a scoreboard,” he says. “I was eight under par and the next best score was Jack Nicklaus at four under. Unbelievable. But when all the cameras started appearing, I suddenly realised where I was and what I was doing. Which is never a good thing when you play on feel.
“Anyway, I took three to get down at the 13th for par. Then I took three to get down from the back of the 14th. Another shot was dropped at the 15th, which I couldn’t reach in two, even with two drivers. Then I parred in for 65.”
One day later, Ballesteros would match that score with a round that will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to see it up close.
“Seve’s whole tournament changed over the last five holes that day,” recalls former Ryder Cup player and now BBC commentator Ken Brown, who played alongside the eventual champion. “He birdied the 14th. He birdied the 15th, where he chipped in. He made par at the 16th. He birdied the 17th. And he birdied the last. For 65. On that golf course, that is phenomenal. Those are brutal holes.”
Even Seve’s caddie, the ever-grumpy Dave Musgrove, was impressed.
“I got so fed up with him missing fairway after fairway that at one point I said to him: ‘Why don’t you try closing your eyes and hitting it?’ laughs Musgrove, who also shepherded Sandy Lyle and Lee Janzen to major championship victories. “He didn’t do that, but he did start making putts. And on the final hole that day he hit an unbelievable shot off a downslope on a grassy bank. It finished 3ft away.
“A lot of people say Seve was lucky to win, because he played so badly. But he had worked it all out.”
By the final day, the contest was down to two men: Seve and the redoubtable Irwin, who only three weeks earlier had won his third US Open. For all that, however, he was less than confident.
“I knew early in the week that it was going to be a long few days for me,” he reveals. “I had lost my rhythm. I wasn’t hitting the ball solidly. I was getting round on experience. But I knew deep down it wasn’t happening. Yet for three days I had everyone fooled into thinking I was playing well; everyone but me that is.”
Sure enough, Irwin would drift off to a closing 78, leaving the stage to the chosen one of Old World golf, the first of seven European major champions in the last quarter of the 20th century.
“On the final hole, the only place you really can’t go is right, into the bushes,” says Musgrove. “So Seve hooked a 3-wood miles left, nearly on to the first green.
“What’s over there?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ve never been over there before.”
“He was at boiling point by then. But he hit a 5-iron just short of the green. Walking up, he says to me: ‘I can take four putts from here and still win.’ I told him that he couldn’t, because I had a bet with another caddie that the winning score would be under par.”
Musgrove won his wager. Seve got down in two from just short of the putting surface and was the champion by three shots from Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw.
“I raised the white flag [handkerchief] after nearly getting trampled going down the 18th fairway,” recalls Irwin. “I had a policeman walking with me and he stuck out his arm just as a kid ran past, knocking the boy into a bunker. At the end I simply congratulated Seve on ‘one of the most interesting rounds of golf I’d ever seen’.
“He was so charming, though. He had that smile. And he looked like he was having fun. The crowds loved that I know.”
Yes they did. And 14 months on from his untimely death, the modern, one-dimensional professional game misses him and his unmatched inventiveness and panache more than ever. It has been said many times of others, but in the case of Seve, it has never been more apposite: we will never see his like again.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: West