Wednesday, 18 July 2012

1988 Open Championship: Seve Ballesteros

Sunday 22 July, 1984: A Spaniard stands on the 18th green at St. Andrews, punching the air in sheer joy, with a smile on his face that lights up the world. Some 400 miles away, an 8-year-old boy watches his first ever Open Championship on television, and is immediately captivated by this man, beginning an obsession with Severiano Ballesteros that still goes on to this day. As the Open Championship returns to Lytham in 2012, it is impossible not to think of Seve, and all that he achieved there. As this blog specialises in 1980s sporting events, it is obvious that Seve's 1988 Open triumph will be the focus of this piece, and not his first major win in 1979 on the same course. It is hard to write about your heroes, but here goes....

Seve had shown remarkable consistency in the golf majors since his Open win in 1984; eight top-ten finishes highlights this fact. But this did not stop the doubting Thomases questioning the great man's ability to add to his four major titles. Ron Wills, writing in the Daily Mirror two days before the 1988 Open, stated: "But the golden touch has deserted him since capturing the 1984 Open title at St. Andrew's, and now the swashbuckling Ballesteros has been relegated down among the also rans in the major championships." Oddly, Wills would back the 31-year-old Ballesteros in his Thursday morning preview, but for the moment his words were hardly a ringing endorsement for a man who, after all, was still joint favourite with Corals before the tournament began: Ballesteros and defending champion Nick Faldo were both 8/1, with Masters winner Sandy Lyle at 9/1. Ballesteros was upbeat about his prospects: "With the special feeling I have here - this feeling in the blood - this could be the time I win another major."

The Americans on the other hand, were less fancied by both the bookies and Europe's Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin. Of the US contingent, Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange were the shortest price, at 14/1. As we all know, the bookies are often right, and the mood of negativity towards the American chances of victory was confirmed by comments Jacklin made before the Open began: "I can't see beyond a European winning here this week. Why? Because we in Europe have the better players. I suppose Curtis Strange is among the top three players in the world at the moment but the conditions here will not favour the Americans." Partisan perhaps, but Jacklin's opinion was also backed up by Tom Watson. Lanny Wadkins and Paul Azinger however, were not as impressed, the former indicating that in his opinion "Tony has obviously got too patriotic." Even in a non-Ryder Cup year, the relations between Europe and America were a little strained.

On Thursday 14 July, Seve teed off at 8.54am and was out of the blocks fast. Three birdies in the first three holes, and another birdie on the sixth, sent a ripple of anticipation through the record first day Open crowd of 35,191. The one blip in Ballesteros' round came at the 14th, where he was forced to take a two shot penalty after finding a bush. Still, a first round 67 (four under par), had sent a message out to Seve's rivals and detractors, that the Spaniard meant business.

The Daily Express headline of "Super Seve stands out in a crowd" was apt: Nick Faldo finished level par, blotting his round by bogeying the 17th and three putting the last; Sandy Lyle dropped three shots in the last four holes for a 73; Curtis Strange carded a poor 79, hardly ramming Tony Jacklin's words down his throat (he would subsequently shoot three sub-70 rounds, but the damage had been done). The best placed American was in fact Brad Faxon, who had only qualified for the Open the previous Monday, and was now tied for second with Australia's Wayne Grady on two under par. Only four other golfers broke par - Australian's Peter Senior and Noel Ratcliffe, American Don Pooley, and Zimbabwean Nick Price - all on one under par.

If round one had belonged to Seve, then it would be Nick Price's turn on the Friday to take centre stage in the second round. Price, who had thrown away a three shot lead with six to play at the 1982 Open in Troon, equalled Ballesteros' Thursday score of 67, and sounded in a determined mood for the weekend ahead: "I learned a golden lesson at Troon and one which I hope to work in my favour this time. If when I'm fifty and retire and haven't won an Open I'll never forgive myself." He would need to show nerves of steel over the next two days, as the pre-tournament favourites were lurking in the background.

At the halfway stage, Ballesteros sat one shot behind Price on four under par, after a level par round. Naturally, the great man showed his excellent skills of recovery once more, a chip and a putt at 17 for a par was followed by an equally impressive bunker shot and putt at the last. Faldo, warned by officials during his round for slow play, put this to the back of his ever focused mind, carding a 69, and shared third place with Craig Stadler, who himself had gone round in an impressive 68. Again Faldo would drop a shot at the 17th, and by the end of the week the Englishman probably wanted to burn the patch of land that it sat on.

Sandy Lyle brought himself back to within five of Price, shooting a 69, and despite of Jacklin's jibes, the Americans were actually faring reasonably well: Andy Bean had played the back nine in four under par, to sit in fifth place on one under par, and Bob Tway and Fred Couples were both on level par along with Lyle. Of the big names to miss the cut, it was hardly unexpected that Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin fell by the wayside, and other casualties included future champions Calcavecchia, Baker-Finch, as well as past major winners in Larry Mize, Hal Sutton and Ray Floyd.

Again a record crowd of 43,111 had turned up to see Friday's action, though for anyone turning up on the Saturday, all that they would experience was wetness, deflation and disappointment. For we all know that things may change in our life, technology advances through the ages, but the one thing we can always rely on (or not so) is the British weather. Torrential rain washed out any hope of the third round finishing on the Saturday, and for some that was not good news. Under European rules, as less than half the players had concluded their rounds, all scores were discarded (in fact no one completed 18 on that miserable Saturday). The Americans in the field were hit the hardest: Hubert Green had birdied five of the first seven holes, to bring himself back to within five of Price; Corey Pavin birdied three of the first seven; Paul Azinger three out of six; Tom Watson two out of four. Rules are rules though, and with the greens on holes 9, 10 and 11 completely flooded, there was nothing that the R & A or the players could do about it.

Initially the R & A hoped to play 36 holes on the Sunday, though further bad weather and course conditions scuppered this plan. For the first time in Open history, the championship would therefore have to be played to a finish on the Monday, hardly ideal for television companies, players and fans, but under the circumstances the only possible solution to the problem. Players would also be sent out in three-balls, in order to speed things up a bit, something that, come Monday, actually made things that much more exciting.

The Sunday saw the British challenge gain a head of steam. Nick Faldo again improved on his previous round, claiming five birdies in his 68, although inevitably he ended up bogeying 17 again. Sandy Lyle matched Faldo's five birdies, and with just the one bogey, his 67 put him right back in the hunt. Nick Price showed no signs of nerves, his 69 increasing his lead, as Ballesteros went round in a steady 70. Seve's round of course wasn't without incident, as the par 5 sixth hole saw the Spaniard play two shots left handed from a bush, and escape with a relatively good bogey six. Birdies at 7 and 13 put Ballesteros within two shots of Price, and set up a mouth watering final day.

As for the rest of the field, Craig Stadler's hopes were buried with a triple bogey at the par three 12th, his mood unlikely to have been improved when he was heckled at the 17th ("These people should be ejected and told not to come back", uttered a justifiably annoyed Peter Alliss on the BBC). Stadler's fellow American Lanny Wadkins was in a slightly better mood after acing the par three first, and England's David J Russell created a stir by going out in 29 (six under) to move to two under for the tournament, although sadly it couldn't last: a bogey at 10 was followed by a double bogey at 12 (after going out of bounds and hitting a car bonnet in the process), and a bogey at 14 took the wind out of Russell's sails. His 69 was the ultimate game of two halves - 29 for the front nine and 40 for the back.

At the end of round three, it looked as if the Open would be won by one of four men: Price -7, Ballesteros/Faldo -5, or Lyle -4. Of the four, Price was the only man without a major to his name, and with this, and his Troon experience still firmly in his memory, the three Europeans did not miss an opportunity to get involved in some pre-Fergie mind games. "Nick has handled it today, but this was only the third round and tomorrow it will be different" said Ballesteros, with Lyle wading in with: "Nick's bound to feel the tension while Faldo, Ballesteros and myself have all won this championship". Price was measured in his thoughts, rightly pointing out that "Tomorrow is the big day and I know that everything will be decided on the last nine holes." Wise words, and very prophetic.



That winning smile.

Hopes of a third home victory in four Opens were understandably high before the commencement of round four, although as things began to unfold it soon became apparent that the 1988 Open would be decided in a two-way shoot out between Price and Ballesteros. The seventh hole saw Faldo's chances recede, as his par was easily outstripped by Price's and Ballesteros' eagles in his three-ball group. Ultimately Faldo would not play badly, it was his lack of birdie putts that did for him. A year before, his level par 71 saw him home at Muirfield, but with Price and Ballesteros in such sparkling form, a repeat was never in the question in 1988. His third place finish was a brave defence though. Lyle's birdies at 7 and 8 boosted his chances, until he was knocked off track slightly by a bogey at 9. And then the wheels fell well and truly off; coming home in 40 was sadly a precedent of what was to come for Lyle in subsequent years. He would miss the cut in the next two majors he played in (the US Masters and the US Open), and his form fell away so alarmingly that he didn't make the 1989 Ryder Cup team. An unfitting end for such a fine player.

Price's perception that the Open would be decided on the final nine holes was as precise as some of the iron play executed by both leaders. With the tough back nine to come, Ballesteros had pulled back the two shot deficit, scoring three birdies and an eagle in the process. Even though this was a strokeplay event, effectively it would boil down to a matchplay contest between the pair, something that suited Ballesteros down to the ground, what with his four World Matchplay wins between 1981-1985, and his experience over the Zimbabwean would surely tell. If Price was expected to fold then he was doing a good job of silencing his critics, as both he and Ballesteros would contribute to one of the most enthralling back nine finishes in Open golf history.

After 11 holes, Ballesteros edged into the lead for the first time, as yet another birdie was too good for Price's par. But just as Seve fans were starting to believe, the equilibrium was restored on the 12th; a Ballesteros bogey ending his superb run. And then to the drama of hole 13: Ballesteros would birdie the hole, but that only tells half the story. Price played an immaculate approach shot, and was inches away from an eagle (you can see how close Price's ball was to the hole in this clip, as Seve's ball lands on his approach to 13). Tellingly Seve nonchalantly rolled in his putt, and any possible momentum that Price may have gained with his sublime approach shot was nipped in the bud.

The co-leaders then both bogeyed hole 14, showing they were human after all, and with pars exchanged on hole 15 the scene was set for one of the great moments in Seve's career. Hole 16 was already synonymous with the double Open champion; his incredible birdie from the car park in 1979 has gone down in Open folklore. In 1988 we were witness to the more mature Seve however, as from the centre of the fairway, he clipped a gorgeous 135-yard nine-iron to within inches of the cup. It wasn't quite the clincher, although Ballesteros would later admit "That was the shot that won it for me". In hindsight it was the moment that finally broke Price's resistance, although with only a one shot lead and two holes still to play, the engraver was hardly getting to work just yet.

The one shot lead stayed intact as both players stood on the last tee. Ballesteros must have hoped that a par would be good enough for his third Open, and as his tee shot clung on to the light rough just to the right of the fairway, all looked good. His second however, did not find the green, ending up again in the light rough, and with a third shot that would test the nerve of any man. Price in the meantime had managed to safely hit the green in regulation, albeit 45-feet from the hole. As Seve stood over his chip, Price knew that his only realistic hope was for the Spaniard to take three to get down.

What followed was yet another moment of genius. As Ballesteros flopped the ball on to the putting surface, it soon became apparent that he had delivered yet again. His delicate touch sent the ball rolling ever closer, and just as the ball was slowing down, it kissed the lip of the hole in a moment of pure golfing theatre. It was, as the Daily Express correspondent James Lawton pointed out, a shot "...fashioned in the golfing heavens." Ballesteros' face contorted in a cocktail of emotions - relief, ecstasy and joy - and he now had one hand on the claret jug. Price could of course still tie, but it wasn't meant to be. His birdie attempt whizzed by, and he somewhat inevitably missed his return. His 69 was a fine final round, especially for someone who was supposed to choke under the pressure, but Seve's 65 (for an 11 under par tournament total) was simply too good on the day. Price's time would come in the Open, but for now it was the Zimbabwean's misfortune that he should come up against Ballesteros in imperious form. Seve later said "That was the best round of my life", and it would be hard to disagree.

Fortunately, I was back in time from school to catch the end of what would turn out to be Seve Ballesteros' last ever major championship. And it is at times like this, when the Open returns to Lytham, and memories naturally gravitate towards the legend, that I'm glad I was just as sad a golf nut then as I am now, as I would have greatly regretted not seeing his final Open victory. For my love of golf, I have one man to thank, and as I attend my first Open championship at Lytham this year, I'll raise a glass or two in memory of the most entertaining golfer I've ever had the privilege to watch. Thank you Seve.

For another Seve related story, please read my blog on the 1983 Ryder Cup

1 comment:

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