The Open Championship this week will be held at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport. So was the Open of 1976, the first one I attended working as a journalist. Due to the exploits of a then 19-year-old Spaniard, it is a championship that has a fond place in Open history.
Seve Ballesteros’s preparations for that Open were far from orthodox. The week beforehand, he was bailing hay with his father on the farm in Pedrena, a job that had to be done by hand since they didn’t have the necessary machinery. When he got to Southport, near Blackpool on the Lancashire coast, his first task was to try to steer his non-exempt brother, Manuel, through qualifying at Hillside, right next-door to Birkdale, by being his caddie. In this he failed, and Manuel did not return the favour. Seve had been hoping that his bagman for the Open would be Dave Musgrove, who had caddied him to eighth place in the French Open at Le Touquet in early May. Musgrove was committed to another player but he had a solution. He had a chum called Dick Draper, a local policeman. He’d never caddied before but he was on holiday for the week and he was up for it, so why not?
The weather that week was of the sort which must have had the Southport Tourist Board thinking that all its summers had come at once. In fact, it was so hot that it felt like they had. And it was so dry that the course actually caught fire. In these torrid conditions, Seve realised that he would have to hit every approach so it would land about 20 yards short of the green and then run on. In the first round, he applied this strategy so successfully that, with a three-under-par 69, he was tied for the lead. In the clubhouse, Manuel graciously accepted congratulations from players who were surprised to see the name Ballesteros on the scoreboards since they thought he’d not made it through qualifying. He had to explain the case of mistaken identity before accompanying Seve to the press centre to act as translator.
“All good fun,” the press thought, as we sat in the enervating heat of the tent in which the interviews were conducted, but we were pretty sure the duo wouldn’t be back in front of us that week. One delightfully idiosyncratic aspect of the translation rigmarole was that someone would ask a question in English, Manuel would explain at length to Seve in Spanish, who would then reply to Manuel at equal length, also in Spanish. Manuel’s explanation to the press in English would then be along the lines of “He feels confident.”
Press scepticism that the above entertainment would be a one-off was incorrect. After another 69 from Seve on the Thursday (the Open was then held from Wednesday to Saturday; it didn’t switch to a Sunday finish until 1980), the Brothers Ballesteros were in the tent again. Seve was leading the Open by two shots from the golden wonder boy of American golf, Johnny Miller. That flailing swing and wondrous putting touch were proving an irresistible combination.
The brothers were staying in a small private house in Southport. They went out for dinner, later walking around the streets and enjoying the glorious July evenings. There was a disco/pub they were particularly fond of, although Seve was more interested in the music than the drink. This first sensation of fame was a welcome one. Seve felt warm and wanted. Photographers snapped him constantly and he was on both the front and back pages of the national press. He was the story of the week – an unknown, good-looking, non-English speaking Spanish teenager leading the biggest golf tournament in the world.
The fuss didn’t abate after the third round. Seve recovered from a rocky opening – he bogeyed the first three holes – to shoot a 73. Miller shot the same. Seve still led by two shots, but now there was only one more round in which he could fall over. After this third day, Seve could think of no reason why Miller should get the better of him. Manuel, on the other hand, could hardly believe what was happening. “He was obviously thinking, ‘My God, my brother could win the Open’,” said Seve. Not only was Manuel incredulous, Seve felt “he was almost embarrassed, because he knew how important the Open was. I hardly understood that, partly because I hardly spoke English”.
There was a media maelstrom surrounding Seve, the pleasant aspects of which he was relishing, but he didn’t comprehend that much of what was going on was speculation about how he was on the verge of becoming the youngest Open champion of the 20th century (in the event, he’d have to wait three years for that), the first continental European winner since Arnaud Massy in 1907 (ditto) and the biggest surprise winner since…well, maybe ever.
His inability to understand anything but the most rudimentary English insulated Seve, and so it was within this serene cocoon that he stood on the first tee of the final round of the Open, playing in the final group, again paired with Miller. “It was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever felt while being in contention,” he said. “I felt no pressure, no obligation.”
On the first hole, a long par-four, Seve was in trouble off the tee and faced a 20-foot putt for his par. He holed it. Miller missed from four feet for his four. Seve was three ahead. He looked at Miller and read what the other man was thinking – ‘He may play unbelievable and win the tournament.’ The scarcely credible was beginning to look likely.
But that was as good as it got. Within a hole, the lead was down to one. Seve bogeyed the 2nd, Miller birdied it. Matters were soon spiralling out of control, along with his swing, as Seve visited hitherto uncharted areas of Birkdale on almost every hole. He took a double-bogey at the 6th, a triple-bogey at the 11th. When Miller chipped in at the 13th for an eagle three, it was over. In a gracious acknowledgement of defeat, Seve shook Miller’s hand. He then looked at a leaderboard and was alarmed to see how many players had overtaken him. A birdie at the 14th and an eagle at the 17th sorted that out, but he needed a birdie four at the last to tie for second.
On the 17th tee, Miller spoke to Seve – in Spanish. As a native of California, it was no surprise that Miller had at least some fluency with the language, but he hadn’t spoken a single word of it to Seve over their previous 34 holes together. “I was a little bit shocked,” admitted Seve. “He said ‘It’s important for you to finish well because Mr Nicklaus is already in the clubhouse [on three under par].’ So I eagled that hole and birdied the last, with a nice chip-and-run between the bunkers.”
That ‘nice chip-and-run’ from some 15 yards short and left of the green was to prove a harbinger. Over the next 20 years, we would witness and thrill to such strokes of genius. Rather than settle for a regulation pitch shot over the bunkers which would require him to make a medium length putt for his four, Seve took on the only shot that could get him close to the pin, knowing that if he failed to execute it properly he was running the risk of taking six. His chip was perfect, threaded through the tiny gap between the bunkers, leaving him a four-foot putt in order to tie for second. In those days, Seve didn’t miss from four feet. It seemed fitting even at the time that Miller, the champion, had already putted out. The final act of this Open was Seve’s.
At his press conference later, Miller said: “It was Seve’s driver that killed him. [A refrain that would be heard down the years, with sonorous regularity.] I really think that if he could have contained himself and used a 1-iron, he might have won.” He added: “I think the best thing for Seve today was that he finished second. His day will come.”
Seve had no clue what Miller was talking about. “I thought that was ridiculous. It is always better to win than come second. But in retrospect I could see what he meant. A lot of things happen, and happen very quickly, when you do something like that, and it is not usual for someone so young to win a major championship. In a way, even three years later, I was not fully prepared for what happened.”
In the shorter term, three tournaments later, after third places in Sweden and Switzerland, Seve won for the first time on the European Tour – the Dutch Open, by eight shots from Howard Clark. He had always known that this day would come. In the wake of Birkdale, so had everyone else.
[BTW, and unrelatedly, you may have read a blog I wrote in May called ‘The Golden Bear & More’. Among other things it alluded to a fourball match I played with Ryan Fox as my partner. It has understandably taken him some time to get over that but in the last three weeks on the European Tour, Ryan has finished sixth in France, fourth in Ireland and fourth yesterday in Scotland, even with a 5-5-5 finish that included a lost ball. Might be worth an each-way bet for the Open?…]
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