For the eighth time in its history, the venerated Lancashire links of Royal Lytham & St Annes hosted The Open in 1988.
On its most recent visit in 1979, a 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros had become the youngest player to lift the Claret Jug in the 20th century. He did so in thrilling, swashbuckling fashion, securing his first major victory at the expense of Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus and earning a cheque for £15,000 for his troubles.
By the time golf’s oldest professional championship found its way back to the Fylde just nine years later, much had changed in the life of the young Spaniard.
For one thing, Seve was now a four-time major champion. He had also spent 21 weeks as No.1 on the Official World Golf Ranking since its launch in 1986, winning 35 times on the European Tour and eight on the PGA Tour. He had topped the European Tour Order of Merit four times and been its ‘Player of the Year’ once.
All of which is to say nothing of the transformative effect he’d had on the Ryder Cup. He had played in four editions of the match – it would have been five had he not been controversially excluded from the team in 1981 – and, in 1985, helped Europe to win the famous gold trophy for the first time since 1957. Two years later, he won four points out of five as Tony Jacklin’s side won on American soil for the first-ever time.
Between visits to Lytham, Seve had amassed a ‘Hall of Fame’-worthy career - and the signs were that he wasn’t done yet. In 15 majors since the most recent of his ‘marquee’ victories at the 1984 Masters, he had finished inside the top-10 eight times. He had also won the Open de Baleares earlier in ’88.
Coming into the tournament, he was the joint betting favourite, going off at 8/1 with defending champion, Nick Faldo. Even so, some were beginning to openly wonder if golf had already seen the best of the mercurial Spaniard.
Writing in The Mirror, for example, popular columnist Ron Wills remarked: “The golden touch has deserted him since capturing the 1984 Open title at St Andrews and now the swashbuckling Ballesteros has been relegated down among the also-rans in the major championships.”
Whilst others wrote him off, Seve remained – outwardly, at least – his usual upbeat, confident self. He told reporters ahead of the first round: “With the special feeling I have here – this feeling in the blood – this could be the time I win another major.”
He teed off early on the opening day and delighted the huge crowd with a blistering start. Birdies at each of his first three holes were followed by another at the sixth. He found a little trouble on the back nine, dropping two shots on the 14th after hitting into a bush, but finally signed for a four-under 67 to lead by two from Wayne Grady of Australia and American Brad Faxon.
A penny for Ron Wills’ thoughts that Thursday night.
If Thursday had been all about Seve, Friday was 'The Nick Price Show'. 'The Price Is Right', as it were.
The Zimbabwean, who had squandered a three-shot lead with six holes to play in the 1982 Open at Royal Troon, followed his opening round of 70 with a 67 to lie five-under at the halfway stage. A scrambling 71 – which included gutsy up-and-downs at the two holes – left Seve a shot shy of Price going into the weekend.
The stage was set for a sensational Saturday. Mother Nature, as she so often does, had other ideas.
Torrential rain lashed down throughout the day, causing large parts of the course – including several greens – to flood. Under competition rules, all scores were to be discarded if less than half the field had concluded their rounds. As none of the 71 players who made the cut managed to play 18 holes, the scores were reset, much to the chagrin, no doubt, of Hubert Green. The American had birdied five of the first seven holes to close to within five shots of Price’s lead. All for nothing.
Having originally intended to play the remaining 36 holes on the Sunday, the R&A were forced to revert to 'Plan C' as the bad weather continued into what should have been the final day. They agreed that, for the first time in its 128-year history, the Open would have to be concluded on a Monday.
A two-under third round of 69 helped Price to extend his lead to two shots over Seve. The Spaniard carded a 70 to lie five-under for the championship alongside Faldo, with Scotland’s Sandy Lyle – the 1985 Open champion – a shot further adrift.
By the time the players reached the turn in Monday’s final round, it had become a two horse race between Price and Seve.
Faldo, who had carded 18 consecutive pars in the final round to win at Muirfield a year earlier, needed birdies to keep pace with the other two players in his three-ball but, with those in short supply, he slowly drifted out of contention.
What followed on the back nine was one of the most thrilling duels in Open history, Price and Seve trading blow after blow after blow. It had the savage ferocity of a heavyweight bout, executed by two of the game’s greatest and most expressive shotmakers.
Seve hit the front with a birdie at the 11th only to give it right back with a bogey at the 12th. On 13, Price came within inches of eagle with a sublime approach, only for Seve to respond with a birdie of his own.
The pair bogeyed 14 and shared pars on 15 before Seve produced one of the greatest moments of his career on 16. Nine years on from an improbable birdie from an overspill car park on the same hole, he flushed a 9-iron to tap-in territory. Afterwards, he would remark that it was the shot that ultimately won him the championship.
There was, though, still time for more drama. Leading by one as they arrived on the 72nd hole, Seve found the right rough off the tee. He then missed the green with his second, opening the door for Price who was safely on in two, some 45 feet from the hole.
Realistically, Seve needed to get down in two from the greenside rough to avoid a play-off. What he produced was a moment of trademark escapology later described by James Lawton in the Daily Express as a shot “fashioned in the golfing heavens”. His delicate chip rolled right up to the edge of the hole, brushing the lip. It was as good as a gimme. When Price was unable to hole his long birdie putt, it was over.
For the second successive Open at Lytham, Seve Ballesteros was the champion. It was his fifth and final major victory.
He later described the 65 he posted in the final round as his finest-ever round.
“I think I played about as well as this game can be played,” he said.
Three Claret Jugs.
Two Green Jackets.