Thursday, 4 October 2012

1980 US Masters: Seve Ballesteros

Realistically there is only one sport I can write about this week. I know that golf, and in particular the 1987 Ryder Cup, was the subject of my blog last week, but the events at Medinah, and the subsequent dose of delight it has provided to us European fans, only provided me with one option: a Seve related blog. Europe's fine win was a fitting tribute to the great man, his spirit evident in such a startling fightback that, just thinking about it, gives me an instant bout of goosebumps. The man who did so much to establish European golf worldwide would have been so proud of the Miracle of Medinah, so I thought it appropriate to rewind to a time when Seve claimed Europe's first US Masters title in 1980, the catalyst to so many European triumphs that followed.

Seve was certainly in good form on arriving at Augusta. Three weeks prior to the Masters, the Spaniard had tied for third place in the Tour Players' Championship at Sawgrass, finishing just a couple of strokes behind tournament winner Lee Trevino. However, Seve had an injury cloud hanging over his head, as his aching back muscles were causing him concern, leading to the Daily Express reporting on the great man hanging from a makeshift trapeze for 14 minutes to strengthen his back. He declared himself fit for the event though and was in bullish mood as he spoke on his 23rd birthday, the day before the event, commenting that his game was "getting better all the time" and "I feel ready to go." The reigning Open champion had a point to prove too, his appearances limited on the US tour by the US PGA, due to his reluctance to commit fully to America, and the barbed comments of a "car park champion" still ringing in Seve's ears since his Lytham win. The Americans would soon learn that it was never a good idea to rile Seve.

The bookies installed Tom Watson as the outstanding favourite at 6/1, and it was easy to see why. Two wins on the US tour already in 1980, the 1977 winner of the Masters, and runner-up in 1978 and 1979, Watson was quite rightly a feared opponent at the time. Coming into the tournament though, Watson was not convinced that he was playing well enough to claim his second green jacket, stating that his game was "neither good nor bad" at the current time. Even so, the press obviously fancied his chances. Mark Wilson writing in the Daily Express stated: "I believe Ballesteros, Watson, and Crenshaw will monopolise the tussle for the title", whilst Ron Wills of the Daily Mirror mentioned both Seve and Watson, before plumping for Johnny Miller: "No, logic dictates Watson will win. European pride says Ballesteros can pull it off. But my choice to triumph in the 1980 Masters is Miller." Other names mentioned in dispatches were Ray Floyd and Lee Trevino, along with defending champion Fuzzy Zoeller. Unsurprisingly, the only Brits to make the event were not heavily backed - Mark James, Sandy Lyle, and the amateur Peter McEvoy.

If there were any doubts surrounding Seve, his golf game, and his back, he put them all to bed in a stunning first round of 66 (six under par). Evidently adopting a slightly safer and less aggressive path around the course, Seve posted seven birdies in his round. His new found strategy also involved laying up at the water-guarded par fives and using his superb short game to gain three birdies in the process. "Only one bogey
today. You like this new Seve?" joked Ballesteros after his round. "I used my head more and my muscles a little less" he added. As a statement of intent, it was fairly impressive.

Ballesteros was joined at the top of the leaderboard by the Australian David Graham (the reigning US PGA champion), and a little known Texan, Jeff Mitchell. Graham's flawless round consisted of six birdies and only 29 putts, as Australia experienced a strong first day, with Jack Newton carding a 68. Newton birdied six of the first seven holes and also claimed an eagle, but four bogeys blotted his scorecard and left him frustrated at what might have been. It was generally a disappointing day for America's big guns: Zoeller carded a solid 72; Watson's 73 involved a paddle in the water at the 15th; Nicklaus and Trevino both went round in 74, Floyd 75, and Crenshaw a woeful 76. Spare a thought though for Tom Weiskopf, who took a staggering 13 shots on the par three 12th hole, on his way to an 85. I bet he wished he was hunting instead. Mark James (74), Sandy Lyle (76), and Peter McEvoy (79), sadly struggled to get to grips with Augusta, and would need strong rounds the next day to even make the cut.

The American contingent did enjoy a slightly better day on the Friday. Rex Caldwell's 66 was the best round of the day, although more notably Watson (69), Zoeller (70), Floyd (70), Crenshaw (70), Trevino (71) and Nicklaus (71), proved that not all was gloom and doom for America's stars. They were all left trailing in Seve's wake though. A stunning finish of four birdies in the final six holes helped Ballesteros shoot a 69, for a halfway total of 135 (nine under par). Just to prove that the old Seve was never far away, the account of his travails on the 17th hole are worth recalling. Hooking his tee shot on the par four roughly 45-yards left, Ballesteros found his ball on the 7th green, having to mark it and wait for the green to clear. Mark Wilson takes up the story: "'Where's the green I want?' he asked his caddy. 'Over that grandstand, over the hill beyond it, and be sure to miss the scoreboard that's also in your way,' came the reply. It was the kind of challenge Sevvy revels in, and there was a deafening roar of approval when his blind 7-iron recovery flew 152 yards to finish 20-feet from the flag." I'm sure you've already guessed what happened next - Seve rolled in his putt for an incredible birdie. Commenting afterwards, Ballesteros explained his waywardness: "Well I don't do it on purpose. But the galleries like it enough. Players who keep hitting fairways are boring." Classic Seve.

There could be no doubting though that the position Seve found himself in at the halfway point of the 1980 Masters was a lot better than some of his drives during that second round. A four-shot lead over Caldwell and Graham was fine, but more telling was his seven-shot advantage over esteemed players such as Watson, Zoeller, Newton, and Gary Player. With the cut falling at 146, Sandy Lyle's fighting 70, including two birdies in the last four holes, was just enough to see him through to the weekend, although both James (74) and McEvoy (76) were both heading home. Nicklaus and Trevino (145), and Crenshaw (146), got through by the skin of their teeth.

Any American hoping for a collapse from Seve during the early stages of round three must have been encouraged, as Ballesteros only parred two of the opening seven holes, meaning his four shot lead had been quickly cut to two. His eagle at the eighth restored his lead though, and birdies at 13 (the last hole of Amen Corner), 14 and 15, stretched his lead further. A dropped shot at 16 was soon regained at 18, and as the galleries drifted away from Augusta, all looked over bar the shouting. Ballesteros' 68 meant that he now held a seven-shot lead over American Ed Fiori, with Andy North, Jesse Snead and Newton a further stroke back. Watson, Trevino, Player and Crenshaw had all shot sub-par rounds, but were too far back to realistically challenge Seve in the form he was in. Sandy Lyle's second consecutive 70 put him in a tie for 25th place, the Scot needing a top-24 finish to earn an invite back for the next year.

With such an imposing lead, Seve was choosing his words sensibly prior to the final round: "I'll concentrate on playing the course, being careful; They will have to play very well to beat me. I won't take any silly chances." Any budding golf fan in the UK wishing to watch Seve's triumph would have to stay up until 10.30pm to catch a glimpse of him on ITV, and then only until 12.25am. It would be a good few years
yet until we could enjoy the delights of Steve Rider on those famous Sunday nights at Augusta.

Strange as it may sound, but there is a danger with holding a large lead going into the final round of a major, just ask Greg Norman and Rory McIlroy. Do you play conservatively, or stick with the game that has got you into such a great position in the first place? It didn't seem to concern Seve though, as he birdied three of the first five holes, reaching the turn with a massive ten-shot lead. It looked as if Seve's only aims would be to try and beat the 72-hole Masters record of 271 (set by Nicklaus and Floyd), and to beat Nicklaus' record of a nine-shot winning margin. But the final nine holes of a major are rarely that straight forward, as Seve was about to prove at Augusta.


Seve tries on the green jacket for size 

A three-putt at ten was slightly irritating, and when Newton birdied 11, Seve's lead had been cut to eight. But come holes 12 and 13, Ballesteros was trying his best to inject as much drama into proceedings as possible, finding water on both holes, dropping three shots in the process, and watching on as Newton completed his birdie hat-trick through Amen Corner to cut the lead down to three. The bad news kept on coming for Seve, as American Gibby Gilbert birdied four holes in a row, and before you knew it Seve's ten-shot lead was down to just two.Speaking after the event, Seve didn't try to hide his state of mind at this time: "Now you are in trouble Seve. Maybe you are going to lose. You must try very hard." Luckily he listened to his own advice, his birdie at 15 calming his nerves and quashing any hopes of a dramatic comeback by Gilbert or Newton. Panic over, Seve was able to play the last few holes in relative comfort, his 72 giving him a final total of 275 (13 under par), finally winning by four shots from Gilbert and Newton. As Fuzzy Zoeller presented Seve with his first green jacket, the world now knew that a star was here to stay, and European golf would never be the same again. But still there were doubters.

Gibby Gilbert's comments after Augusta were perhaps telling: "Seve is good. But he's made to look good here because Augusta has wide fairways where there's no real trouble off the tee." How anyone could question the undoubted talent of Seve still seems shocking, and I'm not being wise after the event here. For some reasoned opinion I'll leave the final word on the subject to Jack Newton: "America seems to think Seve is lucky. It's about time everyone here realised the fellow is a really great player. It takes a lot of guts to win a major championship — and he's won two." In a nutshell, Newton hit the nail on the head. You can perhaps be a little lucky to win one major, but to win two or more is surely down to more than just luck.

Seve's win in 1980 was the first of many European wins which followed at Augusta. The 23-year-old, the youngest winner of the Masters at the time - until 1997 and a certain Mr Woods - paved the way for the glory years to follow, his 1983 repeat proving once and for all that the lucky tag was clearly nonsense. Although Sandy Lyle finished his 1980 Masters with a 78, he too would don the green jacket in 1988, and along with Langer, Faldo, Woosnam and Olazabal, the European contingent made Augusta their own. From 1983 onwards, the Ryder Cup grew and grew as a major sporting event due to the improved standard of European golf, as players on the tour realised that they could compete with their American counterparts
after all.

Seve was at the heart of this. Such a great man, a supremely talented player and charismatic gentleman, someone who refused to accept defeat and could escape from the most perilous of positions. That is why the Miracle of Medinah was the best way to honour the legendary Spaniard. Taking on the Americans in their backyard and winning. Just like Seve in 1980.

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