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Adios, Amigos!

Seve Ballesteros wins 1979 British Open
AP File Photo
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.

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