When Seve Ballesterospassed away last summer he left his fans with a host of wonderful memories.
The charismatic Spaniard won five Majors and more than 80 other titles during his sparkling career and two of his most stirring triumphs victories came at the venerable Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Clubwhich this year will host The Open Championship for the 11th time.
Seve’s career is inextricably linked with this rugged Lancashire links as it was there, in 1979, that he claimed his first Major title and there again, nine years later, where he was to win what was to be his last. He remains the only man to have won two Open titles at the venue and, but for his win at St Andrews in 1984and his brace of successes at Augusta, it might well have been a glorious double that defined his career.
Seve’s two victories at Lytham could scarcely been more different or more exciting to watch.
The first, at the tender age of 22, was punctuated with a steady stream of wayward shots culminating in a wild drive on the 70th hole which came to rest among a group of cars and moved America’s Hale Irwin to label him the “Car Park Champion”. That week, he hit just nine fairways in all four rounds but escaped trouble in a manner even Houdini would have been proud.
In contrast, on his return in 1988, the Spaniard’s golf was imperious, particularly on the final day when he carded a six under par 65 punctuated by one glorious shot after another. In the introduction to his Championship report that year, Golf Digest’s Dan Jenkins, alluded to the plaque placed on the 17th hole to commemorate the miraculous shot Bobby Jones played out of a bunker on his way to victory in Lytham’s first Open in 1926. Jenkins added, with barely a hint of hyperbole, that it would not be possible for the Club to pay a similar tribute to Seve on the grounds that so many plaques would be required that it “would render the course unplayable.”
The two Open titles Seve won at Lytham neatly book-ended the Spaniard’s career. The former performance made him the youngest player to win the Championship since Young Tom Morris in 1872 and also the first Continental golfer to emerge victorious since Frenchman, Arnaud Massy, won at Royal Liverpool back in 1907. The latter merely consolidated his reputation as the most outrageously gifted golfer of his age. Both, it should be added, left an indelible imprint on the minds of all those watching at the time.
In 1979 Ballesteros arrived at Lytham in fine form after winning the Lada English Golf Classic at The Belfry in early July and then following that up with a second place finish behind Scot, Sandy Lyle, at the subsequent Scandinavian Enterprise Open at Vasatorps. The Spaniard was clearly among the favourites as he teed up in the Championship and he confirmed that billing with rounds of 73, 65, 75 and 70 which gave him a three shot victory over both Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus and made him the only competitor to finish the Championship under par.
The great American amateur, Lawson Little, once said the player who wins a Championship is invariably the man who hits his bad shots best and Seve’s performance that week encapsulated exactly what the double US and British amateur champion meant.
That year, much of the Championship was played in conditions that tested even the most experienced competitors to the full. For four days the wind blew hard and cold out of the northwest which meant the front nine was playable but the back nine became a merciless test. In the second round, Seve played the fearsome last five holes in 3, 3, 4, 3, 3 when many players reckoned the actual par was 4, 5, 4, 5, 4. That run included a chip in on the 15th, several up-and-downs and a magical recovery after a wayward drive on the 18th. The recovery shot he played from the car park at the 70th hole remains the defining moment of the contest but it was far from being an isolated demonstration of Seve’s prowess at escapology. Indeed, while Irwin’s comments about the Spaniard being a “Car Park Champion” were clearly a trifle churlish, no-one doubted they did contain more than a grain of truth.
Seve’s performance that week at Lytham was to augment his reputation as a swashbuckling hero but it was a very different performer who was to emerge as the champion golfer in 1988 after one of the finest climaxes the Championship has ever seen.
Many years later, when writing his official autobiography not long before his sad and premature death, Ballesteros left no doubt as to what he thought of the closing 65 he produced in 1988 to finish two shots in front of Zimbabwe’s Nick Price and six in front of the defending champion, Nick Faldo.
“To win The Open at St Andrews is the dream of every professional golfer,” he wrote. “But my best round at The Open — perhaps even the best round of my entire career — wasn’t at St Andrews in 1984. It was that fantastic round of 65 with which I finished to win once again at Royal Lytham four years later.
“It was incredible,” he added. “At one point, I was six under par for six holes but held the lead by only one stroke (because) Nick Price was on top form too.
“That round, for me, easily rivals the wonderful “Duel in the Sun” in the 1977 Open at Turnberry between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. It’s why I went over to Nick Price at the end and said: ‘Nick you played as well as I did; the only difference is that I was luckier.’
“That Open was the fifth Grand Slam tournament I had won, but it meant much more to me than just another Major title. I had been going through a bad patch since the 1986 Masters. I wasn’t exactly forgotten on the European golfing scene, because there had been the glorious Ryder Cup victories in 1985 and 1987, but I was aware of the fact I needed to do something to recover lost ground and regain the place I deserved among the great players. I needed individual success at the highest level.”
Ballesteros achieved that feat with an electrifying performance which began with a birdie two on the opening hole of the Championship and ended with an exceptional round five day later after torrential rain had forced Saturday’s play to be abandoned.
On the final day he missed only three fairways from the tee and none by more than a foot or two. He also hit one great approach after another and would have been out of sight long before the end but for Price’s refusal to buckle under the Spaniard’s birdie barrage.
Many of the Spaniard’s shots stood out that day. In particular, his shot on the par-5 12th where he watched his nearest rival hit a 2-iron to five feet and then followed him with a 5-iron to six feet to match the Zimbabwean’s eagle.
That left Ballesteros a single shot in front of his rival and he was to stay that way until the 13th where Price nearly holed his second shot. The pair we now level and they remained tied until the 16th where the Spaniard hit a 1-iron from the tee and a 9-iron to three inches from the hole to claim a winning birdie.
He played that hole as if he was intent on exorcising the memories of his wayward golf in 1979 and then two holes later he consolidated victory at the last with a glorious 60-foot pitch which all but dropped into the hole.
“I didn’t find any cars this time,” he said later in reference to his sixth birdie of the day on the 16th.
“I think I played about as well as this game can be played.”
History had repeated itself albeit in a totally different manner to nine years before and Ballesteros was ecstatic.
Asked why his golf had been so much more controlled than on his previous visit to Lytham he said: “I don’t know. My putter is the same, my three wood is the same, my sand wedge, my clothes, all the same.
“The only difference is I’m nine years older,” he added. “Maybe I’m a bit more mature.”