Having turned down an invitation to play in the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Seve Ballesteros’ next major start after winning the 1979 Open was the Masters.
Little did anybody know, it would yield his second victory in the game’s marquee tournaments.
Seve had already made three previous visits to Augusta, improving on his previous result each time. After finishing in a tie for 33rd on his debut in 1977, he finished tied for 18th in 1978, followed by tied-12th in 1979. To coin a modern term, he was trending towards victory.
Even so, the odds were stacked against him. No European golfer had ever won the Masters. In the 43 editions staged prior to 1980, only Gary Player, with his three victories, had broken the American stranglehold on the tournament. Perhaps that partly explains why Australian duo Greg Norman and Stewart Ginn declined invitations in order to play in the Hong Kong Open instead…
Seve’s age also appeared to count against him. He celebrated his 23rd birthday the day before the opening round. Until that point, the youngest player ever to slip into a green jacket was Jack Nicklaus, who was 23 years, 2 months and 17 days old when he won the 1963 Masters.
In order to win that year, Seve would have to rewrite the history books – in more ways than one.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also had a field mainly comprised of the greatest golfers in the game to contend with. A total of 91 players took part that year, amongst them Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Lee Tevino. The winners of 26 of the previous 43 editions of the Masters were all back for more, too.
The scale of the task facing Ballesteros – the sole golfer from Continental Europe in the field – was considerable to say the very least.
And yet he arrived in Georgia in confident mood. For one thing, he had a new, shorter swing, honed over the previous winter, that had relieved some of the pressure on his back. More significant, however, was the work he had put in on the mental side of the game. Introduced by a female friend to Dr Alfonso Caycedo, a Colombian teacher who had studied transcendental meditation in India, Seve had become a disciple of sophrology, a discipline that helps fight stress and bring harmony to the mind through a variety of exercises.
At that time, sports psychology was still a largely alien concept, particularly in Seve’s home country, Spain.
Consequently, despite all of the apparent obstacles standing between him and the green jacket, Seve was a picture of calm throughout that week.
“It may seem arrogant,” he later wrote in his autobiography, “but when I reached Augusta that year, I was already expecting to win the Masters.”
He played like a champion right from the start, opening with a six-under 66 to share the first round lead with the reigning US PGA champion David Graham and US pro Jeff Mitchell, who was looking to add a maiden major to the Phoenix Open title he had won months earlier.
When he carded a 69 in round two, he found himself leading the tournament by four shots at halfway.
“I played the best golf of my life from tee to green that week,” he would later acknowledge. “My game had terrific rhythm.”
At the end of the second round, his brother Manolo congratulated on him on establishing such a healthy lead and encouraged him to try to hold onto it in the following day’s third round.
“No,” replied Seve. “Tomorrow, I’m going to play them all out of the tournament.”
So it proved.
A third successive sub-70 round – a four-under 68 – saw the swashbuckling young Spaniard go into the final round with a seven-shot advantage over his nearest challenger, American Ed Fiori. He was galloping, seemingly inexorably, towards victory. One arm in the jacket? Yes, that and the best part of the other sleeve, too.
He continued his blistering form early in the final round, picking up three shots in his first five holes. By the time he reached the tenth, he had a ten-shot lead. He wasn’t aware of it at the time but he only needed to play the back nine in two-under to break the tournament record of 271 shared by Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd.
That’s when things threatened to unravel. “I over-relaxed, thinking I’d already won the tournament,” he subsequently admitted. “It suddenly seemed as if I had lost all motivation, as if I was unable to concentrate at all.”
His travails began with a clumsy three-putt from seven metres at the tenth that cost him a shot. He steadied himself with a par at the 11th before making double at the par-3 12th when he under-clubbed with a 6-iron and found Rae’s Creek. More water damage occurred at the 13th, which led to a further dropped shot. With Jack Newton charging, Seve’s ten-shot lead had been trimmed to three in just four holes.
When he drove into the trees at 14, it appeared as though the old cliché – “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday” – was going to ring true for the second year running. Seve was drifting dangerously close to the same riptide that had yanked away Ed Sneed’s hopes of Masters glory just 12 months prior.
Seemingly from nowhere, and not for the first time, the Spaniard’s powers of recovery came to the fore. He hit a spectacular second to four-and-a-half metres from the flag at the 14th and two-putted for par.
Motivated by a desire to silence a partisan crowd rooting loudly for Newton, Seve then hit the par-5 15th in two – timely, considering that Gibby Gilbert, in the group ahead, had just made his fourth consecutive birdie at the 16th to get to within two shots of the lead. Ballesteros’ resultant birdie at the 15th extended his lead to three shots with three to play. In the end, he won by four from Newton and Gilbert who shared second.
It was Newton who summed things up best in the post-round interviews, magnanimously telling the assembled media: “Gentlemen, it’s time to give Seve the star treatment.”
Fuzzy Zoeller, who had made history by winning on his debut in the tournament a year earlier, helped him into the green jacket.
The youngest winner in Masters history.
The first from Europe.
Only the second from outside the United States.
A winner of back-to-back majors.
Reporting on the tournament for Sports Illustrated, the late, great golf writer Dan Jenkins observed: “Ballesteros is not only immensely talented, having both length and style, but he is also obviously hungry. Anyone can stumble into one major championship. It takes a rare ability of one kind or another to win two of them.”
As it would turn out, he was only just getting started.