On the tenth anniversary of his death, we remember how the British fell in love with the great Seve Ballesteros.
A month before the British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1979, Hale Irwin secured $50,000 in winning the U.S. Open at the then newly refurbished Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. For three days in Lancashire, he looked like he was going to secure the Claret Jug too. However, in the wings, stood a young, creative, fierce competitor.
Twenty-two-year-old Seve Ballesteros persevered, whilst Hale fell apart. Swelling crowds in spitting rain with driving winds did nothing to help the Missouri-born Hale. On the 9th hole of his failing third round, Hale displayed a clenched fist at hecklers. It wasn’t to be.
But Ballesteros’s path was not clear. Jack Nicklaus was still in with a shout. More so, Texan Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw and Nicklaus would tie for second on 2 over. They wouldn’t have enough to match the Spaniard’s power and sleight-of-hand on the green.
Ballesteros became the youngest champion in 86 years, since St Andrews native William Auchterlonie. If you have visited St Andrews and got yourself golfing attire from Auchterlonies Golf Shop, well then you may well know where its name originates. If not, you do now.
It would be a while before Ballesteros would have his own branded clothing line. But dressed in a crisp, large-collared white shirt and navy sweater, it was on the 16th hole of his final round where he would capture the imagination of the watching gallery.
Having teed off from the 356 yard, par 4, Linnet’s and Pied Wagtail’s where joined in the struggle of the stiff wind by the ball struck by Ballesteros. Unlike the summer birds though, Ballesteros ball somehow made its way into an impromptu car park, adjacent to the fairway. That it ended up there was simply poor luck. That he placed it so comfortably onto the green with his iron, was dexterous and stirring.
The poise and precision he then showed to birdie the same hole, was met with a burst of released energy. From both the golfer and the following crowd; who by now were not just caught up with, but felt part of the romance.
With three strokes to spare, he would maintain that difference into the final hole and prove too robust a challenge to stop.
It was the first of a hat-trick of British Open titles for the late golfer. Five years later he would travel to St Andrews and put in another compelling performance to hold off competition from Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson.
His final win was back at Royal Lytham in 1988; a rain filled weekend of golf meant unplayable flooded greens would see the final round on a Monday for the first time. However, he produced some of the finest golf of his career to hold off his closest challenger, Nick Price of Zimbabwe.
Whilst a golfer of grace and control who captured the public’s imagination, this shouldn’t discount the calculated approach he adapted when required, and the resolve. It was a fusion of all these qualities, in 1979, that ensured he laid the most solid of foundations for his career.