Seve: six years on - celebrating the life of a Champion Golfer
When Severiano Ballesteros first played in The Open at Carnoustie in 1975 he left the course deflated and demoralised after missing the cut with rounds of 79 and 80.
Few could have guessed that at Royal Birkdale just 12 months later, the fiercely proud young Spaniard would come close to lifting the Claret Jug at his second attempt.
The record books show that Johnny Miller, the blonde haired, powerfully built American eventually cruised to a six-stroke victory after a magical final round of 66 over Birkdale’s famed and fabulous links. For the first three rounds, however, it was the 19-year-old Ballesteros, floppy haired and with fire in his eyes, who most caught the imagination.
From the moment he took a share of the lead with an opening round of 69 at that year’s Championship, Ballesteros became a permanent fixture in the public’s consciousness. While some seasoned observers thought he would fall away over the next two rounds, the boy from Padrena had other ideas.
With his dashing good looks and up and at ‘em approach to the game he had a look about him reminiscent of Arnold Palmer, whose own swashbuckling style of play had brought him victory at Birkdale in The Open in 1961 and an affectionate following that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Just prior to The Open, Seve, for whom a surname was soon deemed to be unnecessary, had been helping to bail hay with his father on the farm back home in northern Spain; now he was to be found at Southport doing what he loved most and challenging for the oldest and most coveted trophy in the game.
With scores of 69, 69 and 73, Seve went into the final round leading Miller by two strokes. His dream of becoming the youngest player to hold the Claret Jug aloft in the 20th century was not to be, however; that honour could wait for another day.
His driving, wild and uncontrolled, let him down badly in the final round and shots leaked away. A double bogey at the 6th and a triple bogey at the 11th put paid to his challenge as Miller moved inexorably towards victory. However, the fireworks for which Seve was to become famous were not to be doused that easily. While he acknowledged defeat at the 13th after Miller chipped in for an eagle three, he still had some magic up his sleeve. A birdie at the 14th and an eagle at the 17th left him needing a birdie four at the last to tie for second with Jack Nicklaus, who had come in with a 69.
It was at this point that Ballesteros provided one of the iconic moments of his soon-to-be stellar career. Facing a chip over two cavernous greenside bunkers, he knew that by hitting a high wedge he would be unable to stop the ball quickly and would be left with a long putt for his birdie.
His vision was not that of mere golfing mortals, however. What he saw in front of him was the chance to punch a nine-iron out of feathery rough and between the two bunkers. Judging the shot to perfection, he threaded the ball through the tiny gap and brought it to a stop barely four feet from the hole. “That shot alone convinced me that Seve was a genius,” said John Jacobs, the renowned coach.
With Miller putting out first, the final act of The Open was Seve’s. Needless to say his putt found the middle of the hole and the required birdie was secured. From that point on, he was not to look back.
“In his speech afterwards, Johnny said it was the best thing for me to finish second,” Ballesteros said years later. “I thought he was mad, stupid! But not long after, I understood. It would have been too soon. If I had become a superstar that early, it might have been too much for me. If I had signed a lot of big contracts and gotten so much attention, I wouldn’t have had the career I have had.”
Six weeks after Birkdale, the young Spaniard recorded his maiden victory on the European Tour at the Dutch Open. From there he went on to win the Order of Merit as the Tour’s leading money winner, a feat he was to repeat five more times. He won seven times on tour in each of the next two years and arrived at Royal Lytham & St Annes for The Open in 1979 as one of the favourites. This time he did not disappoint.
Victory at Lytham was no less exciting than his challenge at Royal Birkdale three years earlier. In the final round he rarely found a fairway, but his Houdini-like escapology either saved his pars, or landed valuable birdies. He was still only 22 and was indeed the youngest player in the 20th century to lift the Claret Jug. He was also the first golfer from continental Europe to win The Open since Frenchman Arnaud Massy in 1907.
The following year, Seve won the first of two Masters titles, becoming, at 23, the youngest player to don the green jacket, a record he was to hold until Tiger Woods appeared on the scene 17 years later. He was to go on to win two more Open Championships – at St Andrews in 1984 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1988 – and record 50 wins on the European Tour and 87 victories worldwide.His performance at Royal Birkdale in 1976 had been a glimpse into his future career – and what a career it turned out to be.