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Seve Ballesteros wins 1979 British Open

This article first appeared in the July 30, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Welcome to the British Open. Welcome to the American graveyard. Welcome to Blackpool and the frigid Lancashire coast. And tie your head on before the wind off the Irish Sea blows it away, as it did everything else last week except dashing Severiano Ballesteros of Spain.

Every few years the Open is played at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, there as elsewhere to decide the "champion golfer"—as the Royal and Dandruff Golfing Society would have it. And every few years at Lytham somebody from South Africa or Australia or New Zealand or England wins. You may now add Spain to the list.

Last week an American, Hale Irwin, was all set to win it for about three days. On Saturday, in the final round, another American, Ben Crenshaw, was all set to win it for about three hours. Jack Nicklaus even had an outside chance to win it for a few minutes. But none of them came up with the special dizzy kind of game that Lytham required last week. Only 22-year-old Ballesteros was capable of that, and he saw to it that this strange old links would remain a mystery to every American who has tried to conquer it since Bobby Jones beat Lytham in 1926.

Ballesteros, the youngest British Open champion in 86 years, won with brute strength, a deft putting touch and incomparable luck at finding his ball in trampled-down broom, scrub willow, bluebells and heather. But he didn't actually nail down the coffin lid on his American challengers until the final holes of a wild last round.

The tournament began, as British Opens are apt to, with the emergence of a character. At Lytham it was Bill Longmuir of the lorry-driving, personality-contest-dazzling, Nigerian Open-winning, non-golfing Longmuirs. Longmuir became the big story of the opening round on Wednesday by shooting a 65 from out of nowhere and taking a three-stroke lead on Irwin.

There seem always to be Longmuirs in the British Open, each of whom quickly disappears into the gorse. But they are fun while they last. This Longmuir, a devilishly handsome 26-year-old, was more fun than most, and he hung in there longer than most. On Saturday he was only five shots back before shooting an 82 to finish 30th. In 1976 he had won the Nigerian Open while a small war was going on there. "We were told to play gingerly around the 12th hole, which was near the army barracks and the rifle fire, you see," he said. Earlier that year, Longmuir drove a furniture lorry, and in his ventures into personality contests he had won the titles of Mr. Basildon and Mr. Talk of the South. In one such contest he was required to teach a golf swing to a professional stripper named Fiona Richards. "It was quite nice standing behind her," he said. And how was her swing? "Rather lumpy."

The gallery at Lytham also had a distinctive personality. Blackpool is a resort catering to the workingman on holiday and he was out on the links in force. There were record crowds, even in the horrid weather—it was wet as well as cold and windy—and they became more mob-like as the tournament progressed. They tore over the crosswalks, spilled out of the grandstands, shouted, cheered and even jeered at players they had not bet on. A pub behind the ninth green was a rowdy place indeed, where the competitors often heard calls of "Miss it! Miss it!" as they bent over their putts.

Irwin gave the blokes his fist on Friday as he struggled through the third round, trying to fight off Ballesteros and the weather. Sally, his wife, smoldered all the way around Lytham in anger, saying later, "Heckling is cheating."

No American has ever been heard to say that he likes Lytham, which may have something to do with why no American has won there since Jones. Lytham appears to be the special province of the world at large: Ballesteros, South Africa's Bobby Locke (1952), Australia's Peter Thomson (1958), New Zealand's Bob Charles (1963), England's Tony Jacklin (1969) and then South AfricanGary Player (1974), who that year was not preoccupied with having a son playing in the threesome ahead of him. Wayne Player, 17 and feisty, was one of only two amateurs to survive the first cut at Lytham. He is a talented young golfer who has not only inherited his father's competitive nature (on the first day he shot a 75 to Gary's 77) but also has already learned how to brighten up for cameras.

Lytham's front nine and back nine are as different as two halves of a golf course can be. The front goes downwind along a railway track, surrendering birdies like pork pies, weirdly featuring par-3 holes at the first and ninth and back-to-back par 5s reachable with a seven-iron. But the course turns homeward with a series of par 4s you often can't get near with cannons, and the competitor at Lytham learns to think of par as 33-38 instead of the 35-36 it is meant to play to. On top of all this, Lytham's narrow fairways and tiny greens make it the most confining of all the British Open courses.

As graveyards go, there has seldom been one in golf like Lytham's back nine last week. Only once was it bruised, and that was on Thursday when Ballesteros fired his own 65, a round electrified by the four birdies he made over the last five holes. Ballesteros managed it with a combination of bold play and luck, chipping in for one birdie at the murderous 15th, holing a long putt at the murderous 17th and getting destiny's bounce for a gimme three at the 18th, which sits hard by the gin drinkers in the old redbrick clubhouse.

From the beginning it seemed likely that Saturday's last few holes would settle things. Quite obviously a man could lose or gain enormous ground from, say, the 12th hole to the clubhouse warmth, particularly over the last four holes. Anyone within four strokes of the leader with four holes to play had a right to think of himself as a serious contender.

The round began with Irwin two strokes ahead of Ballesteros, three ahead of Nicklaus and a mustachioed Englishman named Mark James, four ahead of Crenshaw and a beknickered Australian named Rodger Davis, and five ahead of Tom Watson. The Americans appeared to be in good shape. If Irwin succumbed to the cold and wind—he wore two sweaters, a shirt and "intimate apparel" underneath against that risk—Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Watson were poised. In the first three days Nicklaus had lost 10 strokes to par on the back nine alone, but how long could that continue? Crenshaw was playing superbly, flirting with low rounds all the way. Watson was always a possibility. And, in any case, Irwin had proven himself a durable front-runner as recently as June, when he won the U.S. Open.

So there was enough American talent to derail the Spaniard. But Irwin promptly double-bogeyed the second hole and began working his way to a 78; Watson double-bogeyed the third and the seventh and started his unmerry trek toward a miserable 81; and Nicklaus bogeyed the fourth, ensuring that getting a 72 was going to be uphill all the way. Only his perseverance on the back nine enabled him to become a runner-up in the British Open for the seventh time.

Despite these disasters, for a long while it looked as if another American, the appealing Crenshaw, might finally win his first major title after coming so close in the past. Through 13 holes he was three under par on the round. Even after a sloppy bogey at the 14th, he was tied with Ballesteros for the lead on the 17th tee, still two under on the day, and one could hear again what Jerry Pate had said to Crenshaw the previous evening: "Gentle, you're my pick tomorrow. I believe you can rope-a-dope that old hook of yours right into victory lane." Pate had put three different sports into one sentence, proving he was from Alabama. Yet toward the end what he said seemed prophetic. But Crenshaw mis-clubbed himself out of the rough on the 17th, hit into a bunker, then into another, then missed a short putt, and the consequent double bogey reeled him to 71. It was a fine score, just as his previous rounds of 72, 71 and 72 had been. But it was only good enough to leave him in a tie with Nicklaus at 286.

It was over that horrible last stretch of holes that Ballesteros put his own mark on the tournament. He kept driving the ball prodigious distances to out-of-the-way places. But he always seemed to find it, and most often when he arrived on the greens he dropped his putts. History must record that Ballesteros played Saturday's last seven holes in one under par—indeed, he played the last four holes in one under par while catastrophe befell the rest.

With his strength and putting touch, there is no telling how many British Opens Ballesteros can win now that he knows how. There are no tall trees to keep him from driving the ball all over the landscape without having some kind of shot left to the green. On the day Seve shot his 65, he did not hit a tee shot into a fairway—on the "cut part," as they say—until the 14th hole. He can get away with that on British Open courses, not in America.

Those last few holes on Saturday were typical of how Ballesteros plays golf. He was nowhere near the par-3 12th green after a soaring two-iron that wanted to go to Ireland but hit a steep bank. He pitched up and rolled in a five-foot putt for par. He was nowhere near the cup with his second shot at the 13th, but he holed a 20-footer for a birdie. He drove into a car park at 16 and got a free drop—then made a birdie. He drove wildly into unidentifiable flora on the 17th, gouged his way short of the green and chipped 12 feet past the hole, but he rapped the putt in for a routine par. And that was the championship. Those were the shots—along with Crenshaw's calamity—that gave him his three-shot lead. His par 4 at the 18th was a celebration. His final-round 70 and his 283 total were proof positive that accuracy at Lytham is not necessarily a virtue.

Earlier in the week Ballesteros had said, "We should play British Open without fairways, then I come close to win." After the victory, with his three brothers weeping with joy, he said, "I don't aim for the rough, it just goes there. My caddie tell me close the eyes and hit it. Maybe I go into fairway."

The fact is, with his driver Ballesteros hit nine fairways—nine—in 72 holes of golf. He hit one on Saturday. One. They had played a British Open without fairways after all. At least they weren't necessary for Ballesteros, whose style of golf matched Lytham perfectly and kept it an American graveyard.

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