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On only his tenth major championship start, and just three years after he had finished second to Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale, Seve Ballesteros won the first of his three Opens in flamboyant fashion at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
Aged 22 years of age, he became the youngest ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’ of the 20th century and the first continental European to lift the Claret Jug since Frenchman Arnaud Massy at Royal Liverpool in 1907.
Seve arrived on the Fylde coast in fine form. Since missing the cut at the Spanish Open at the end of April, he had finished no worse than tied for tenth in his next five European Tour events. He missed the cut in the US Open at the Inverness Club in Ohio but bounced back by winning his ninth European Tour title on his very next start: the Lada English Golf Classic at The Belfry at the beginning of July.
So, it was with some justification that he was tipped to make his major breakthrough before the month was out.
Those predictions looked rather misplaced when he got off to an inauspicious start, carding a two-over 73 in blustery conditions to trail the first round leader, Scotland’s Bill Longmuir, by eight shots.
He needed something special on day two and duly delivered with a magnificent 65 that left him two shots adrift of Hale Irwin at the halfway stage.
Like Ballesteros, Irwin came into the championship in good form. He had won his second US Open title a month earlier, holding off fellow past champions Gary Player and Jerry Pate to take the title.
Paired together in the third round, Ballesteros and Irwin matched each other’s score with a pair of 75s on a brutally tough day. Indeed, just one player in the top-10 at the day’s end – England’s Mark James – broke 70 in that round, leaving Irwin out in front as the only player under par for the tournament.
With a round to play, only six shots separated the top-10, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Greg Norman joining Seve in the pursuit of Irwin.
Once again, Seve struggled off the tee in the final round but, with spectators having trampled down most of the spots he drove into, he was able to fashion unlikely recoveries from all kinds of lies.
In so doing, he gradually broke Irwin’s spirit. Every time it looked as though his young Spanish rival was going to surrender a shot to him, he rescued par from the jaws of bogey and birdie from the jaws of par. It was a mesmerising display of resolve and recovery.
Nothing exemplified that quite like the 16th. After another wayward drive, Seve found that his ball had come to rest underneath a car in an overspill car park adjacent to the course. He got a free drop and, with his second shot, hit a wedge onto the green and promptly converted the putt for birdie.
With Irwin laboring to what would eventually be a 78 and none of the chasing pack able to keep up with Seve, the Spaniard enjoyed the luxury of a walk down 18 with shots to spare.
In a 2005 interview, he described what it was like to make his way to the final green knowing that he was on the brink of history.
“It was one of the greatest moments of them all,” he smiled. “People on the left, people on the right, people behind, people in the stands. It was tremendous, fantastic. It’s hard to describe but it’s one of those moments you’ll never forget.”
In the end, he signed for a one-under round of 70 and a three-shot win over joint runners-up Crenshaw and Nicklaus. As well as the Claret Jug, he earned £15,000 for his efforts.
For Seve and for Spain, it was a first major victory. As the crowd hailed golf’s new superstar, his three older brothers rushed to greet him as he walked off the green. For the first time, he cried.
“The moment that all my three brothers came up and gave me a hug, it broke me,” he later said. “Up until then, I was totally in control.
“When you win, you feel like you are the king of the Earth.”
Afterwards, most people focused on the unlikely manner in which Ballesteros won. One reporter memorably observed that he had “occupied more bunkers than a four-star general in war-time”. It was a fair point. Over the course of 72 holes, Seve had found the sand 15 times – but had successfully got up and down 14 times.
As good as he was out of bunkers, he was terrible off the tee. He hit only nine all week, including just one in the final round. “My caddy told me ‘Close your eyes and hit it. Maybe then you will hit the fairway,’” he laughed.
On several occasions, he was sixty, eighty, sometimes even 100 yards off-line. And yet he still conjured up a way to win in the face of challenging weather and a field comprising the best golfers in the world.
His peers were more generous in their praise. Five-time Open champion Peter Thomson was left “speechless” by Ballesteros’ performance. Henry Cotton said: “The good fairies were certainly with him”. Crenshaw called him the “most exciting player I’ve seen since Arnold Palmer” whilst Nicklaus, a winner of 14 majors by this point, said: “He’s a good, strong, young player and he’ll win lots of golf tournaments.”
The acclaimed golf journalist Dan Jenkins agreed. Reporting on the tournament for Sports Illustrated, he wrote: “With his strength and putting touch, there is no telling how many British Opens Ballesteros can win now that he knows how.”
However, it was perhaps the headline on the report of Raymond Jacobs in The Herald that best summarised the extraordinary events: “A WAYWARD WIN MUCH IN CHARACTER”.
Wayward or otherwise, Seve was a major champion. Golf had a new hero. An exciting new era had begun.
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