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As the week of the 1984 Open Championship arrived, one man in particular was the talk of St Andrews.
Following back-to-back wins at Royal Troon in 1982 and Royal Birkdale in 1983, the American was bidding to become the first man since Peter Thomson in the 1950s and only the fifth in history to win the Claret Jug three years on the spin. Not only that, he would equal Harry Vardon’s record of six Open victories.
Watson had reasons to be optimistic. When the Open had last visited St Andrews, in 1978, he had finished in a tie for 14th. But for a disappointing final round, he would have finished much higher. He had also won three times on the PGA Tour in 1984, including the Western Open on his most recent start, just 11 days before The Open got underway. From there, he went straight to Turnberry, Troon and Prestwick to work on his perfectly his already damn-near perfect links skills.
The man to beat? That’s putting it mildly.
He got off to a solid start, too, carding a one-under 71 to lie four shots off the early pace set by Peter Jacobsen, Greg Norman and Bill Longmuir.
A second round 68 left Watson in a tie for sixth before he made his move on day three, a six-under 66 catapulting him to 11-under for the tournament and into a share of the lead with Australia’s Ian Baker-Finch.
Eighteen holes and 6,933 yards of the world’s oldest and most famous golf course were all that stood between him and history.
The script, seemingly, was playing out exactly as intended – only Seve Ballesteros hadn’t read it.
Still searching for his first win of the year, the 27-year-old Spaniard was just two shots behind Watson and Baker-Finch going into the final round – and, ominously for his rivals, he was feeling confident.
As he left the course on the Saturday night, Seve – tied for third with Bernhard Langer – told reporters, “I’ll see you all here tomorrow.”
“It was obvious I didn’t mean I was going to be there as runner-up,” he would later acknowledge. “I’d beaten Watson in the Masters the year before and, though I thought Langer was very good, I didn’t think he was ready to win a major yet.”
However, despite his outward conviction, deep down, the Spaniard was playing it cool.
“As we say in Spain, don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve caught the bear. The first rule of golf is you must control your emotions. You should never imagine yourself holding the trophy before the game is over: golf is too unpredictable.”
As the final round got underway, Seve went out in the penultimate group alongside Langer, followed by leaders Watson and Baker-Finch.
A birdie at the fifth bounced Ballesteros into a share of the lead. Another at the eighth gave him the outright lead. He ultimately went out in 34.
Watson, meanwhile, appeared to be struggling. The deft touch that had served him so well the previous three days seemed to abandon him overnight. He three-putted three times in his first five holes and played the front nine in 37 blows.
Seve had a three-putt of his own at the tenth before dropping a shot at the par-3 11th and missing a short birdie opportunity at the 12th. With Baker-Finch floundering and Langer desperately trying to recover from a disappointing front nine of his own, the stage was set for a duel to the finish between Seve and Watson.
With two holes to play, there was still nothing to separate the two men. With Watson coming down 16, Seve pulled his tee shot on 17 into the rough on the left. Having bogeyed the ‘Road’ hole on each of the previous three days, most assumed he was staring at another dropped shot at precisely the worst time. Not the first time, the Spaniard confounded expectations. He flushed a 6-iron out of the rough, flying it almost 200 yards through a light left-to-right breeze and landing it perfectly on the green. He two-putted for a critical par.
Watson, meantime, had no such problems finding the fairway at 17. It was with his second that he made a fatal flaw, over-clubbing spectacularly with a 2-iron that flew the green and came to rest near the wall beyond.
“I just hit a terrible shot,” he would later concede. “I pushed it 30 yards right of where I was trying to hit it. It wasn’t even close. I was trying to land the ball on the green like an idiot from an uphill lie. Sometimes you make the wrong decisions.”
It was a dreadful mistake that cost him a shot.
Up ahead, Ballesteros had left himself a tricky, curling 15-foot birdie putt. At first, it appeared as though he had hung it too far out to the right… only for it to drop below the ground with its very last roll.
As the crowd erupted, Seve punched the air in ecstasy. When Watson was unable to eagle the final hole, it was all over.
For the second time in his career, Seve Ballesteros was the ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’, joining a select group of only 18 golfers to have won golf’s oldest and most prestigious prize in the game’s hometown. It was his first and only victory in Scotland.
Writing in his autobiography years later, he described his winning moment.
“The putt had a clear borrow to the left, but as I struck the ball I felt I had overdone it. I hadn’t. It rolled sweetly towards the hole, then seemed to hover on the edge of the cup, before finally going in as if in slow motion, perhaps impelled by my powers of mental suggestion, so strong was my desire that it should drop in.
“This was the happiest moment of my whole sporting life. My moment of glory, my most fantastic shot.”
Who could argue?
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