Tour and News

It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

Seve Ballesteros

This article first appeared in the July 30, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Somehow, you knew it would come down to the Road Hole and the Valley of Sin and all of the golfing lore pressed among the buildings that look like haunted houses in the city of St. Andrews in Scotland. And you had the feeling that it just might involve the two outstanding players in the game today, Severiano Ballesteros and Tom Watson, once the unknown kid with the hyphenated name got out of the way. And that's what happened on the oldest links in the world Sunday when a wild shot by Watson and a birdie putt by Ballesteros gave the British Open championship to the dashing Spaniard. Neither shot was expected. Both were as bizarre as the surroundings, which uncharacteristically included a windless sky, a blue sea in the distance and Scots fueled by lager scaling the rooftops of ancient structures

It had looked throughout most of the afternoon as though Ballesteros and Watson would wind up in a tie and go into an 18-hole playoff on Monday, but then came the two blows, only moments apart, which made the record-setting crowds—187,753 for the week, not counting the thousands who stood beyond the fences and watched without tickets—alternately gasp with horror and thunder with approval. Ballesteros was playing one hole ahead of Watson, and the two men had stayed within a stroke of each other most of the day. They struggled into a deadlock with an exchange of birdie putts back on the 13th and 14th holes. Since both were playing beautifully in the crunch, what would have been more appropriate than a playoff, with five-time British Open champion Watson chasing the ghost of six-time winner Harry Vardon and Ballesteros chasing the reputation of Watson?

At first, the thinking was that the 17th, the Road Hole, might alone decide it—and in a way it did. This jewel of 461 yards, perhaps the greatest par-4 in the world, had been claiming victims all week, and for about 450 years, in fact. It requires a tee shot over some fake railway sheds and around a hotel, and then a long second shot to the two-tiered green, which has a pot bunker on the left and a tiny road on the right and down behind it. The road is inbounds as it sneaks between the putting surface and an old rock wall. Ballesteros had bogeyed the hole three days in a row. Watson had parred it once, having suffered a bogey and a double bogey in his other attempts.

Ballesteros began Sunday two strokes behind Watson and that unfamiliar hyphen, Ian Baker-Finch of Australia, who were tied for the 54-hole lead with an 11-under total of 205. At 17 Ballesteros drove into the left rough. With a nice, easy swing from a good he in the high grass he lofted a six-iron onto the green from 193 yards away, a thrilling shot under the circumstances. He cozied the 30-foot birdie putt up to within a foot of the cup and then finally parred the hole. And so, as Ballesteros went to the equally historic 18th, where the golfer aims at the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and the spires of the town, Watson confronted the Road Hole. He immediately attacked the hole by pounding a drive up, over and around the Old Course Golf and Country Hotel and into the fairway, leaving himself 200 yards from the green.

And that's where it all went crazy. Watson took a three-iron from his bag, but then put it back and selected a two-iron. He had a dandy lie, but his shot took the oddest flight imaginable. It was as if Harry Vardon himself, long laid to rest, had sent down a poltergeist to interfere with the shot. Watson struck what looked for all the world like a semishank, half-flier, out-of-control fade-slice that wanted to go to Edinburgh. The ball carried everything, bounded off the road, and settled about two feet from the shoulder-high rock wall.

From there, Watson had no chance for a chip shot. His swing was restricted to the point that he might have done as well with a swizzle stick as with the choked-down seven-iron he was now forced to gouge at the ball with. He did what he could, scraping the ball across the road and up and over the steep slope to 30 feet beyond the pin. His putt for a par was never in the hole.

Meanwhile, oblivious to Watson's problems, Ballesteros had driven far up the 18th fairway and was already getting the ovation that golfers can receive only at St. Andrews. Before his second shot, someone told Ballesteros that Watson had missed the 17th green. "But I told myself, 'Watson is Watson, he'll still make par so I need to make birdie,' " said Ballesteros. Then he punched a wedge shot over the Valley of Sin, a monstrous swale in front of the 18th green, and made it sit down only 15 feet short of the pin. He had a right-to-left birdie putt. At first he thought he'd made it, and then thought he'd missed it, but the ball toppled into the cup after grazing the rim like so much salt on a margarita glass. That birdie gave Ballesteros a 69 and a St. Andrews Open record 276, 12 under par.

Watson was aware that Ballesteros had made the birdie before he faced his impossible putt for a par at the 17th. "I knew I would have to pull off a couple of major miracles," he said. "And you don't do that too often at a major." He didn't, flying his wedge for the eagle 30 feet past the pin on the 18th. As it was, he missed the putt, finishing with a one-over-par 73, and tied West Germany's Bernhard Langer for second place at 278.

Watson's recollection of the ill-fated second shot on the 17th was that he "pushed" the ball. "The minute it left the clubhead, I knew it was a bad shot," he said later. "Indecision doesn't help," he added, referring to his three-or two-iron choice at 17, "but I had a good lie and no excuses. What hurt me more than anything today was a balky putter."

If the 17th was the decider, then Ballesteros's wonderful six-iron from the rough was the key shot of the tournament. In his earlier rounds of 69, 68 and 70, he had driven into just about the same spot in the rough, but a four-iron and two previous six-irons had all gone astray. "This time it was right," said Ballesteros. "I aimed to the right of the bunker and tried not to hit it too hard. Too far is the road and the road is no good." Tell it to Watson.

By getting his approach onto the 17th green at St. Andrews within 30 feet of the cup, Ballesteros has added to the considerable history of the Road Hole. Ben Crenshaw, the Masters champion who finished in a tie for 22nd at two-under 286—with the aid of a hole-in-one Sunday at the 8th—put the 17th in the best perspective of all: "The reason the Road Hole is the greatest par-4 in the world is because it's a par-5."

Ballesteros will remember that he won his second British Open (his first was in '79 at Royal Lytham and St. Annes) and his fourth major (he has two Masters titles) in front of more people than had ever attended a golf tournament. The first indication that this Open would draw record crowds came on Monday when a chartered Concorde carrying many U.S. pros and assorted television personalities landed at Leuchars Air Base, only seven miles from the town of St. Andrews. Some 20,000 spectators turned out for the Concorde's landing. The Americans on board were astounded and unable to guess whether the people were there to see the aircraft itself or Arnold Palmer, who was encouraged to step off the plane first.

After Monday the town was a virtual zoo, swirling with people in every woollens shop, bookstore, antique golf-club shop and tearoom. Hordes traipsed up and down the streets, spilled out of pubs, shoved their way into the limited number of hotels and invaded the Old Course, which runs out along St. Andrews Bay and then returns toward town.

No British Open, certainly none at St. Andrews, had ever been blessed with such weather. Throughout the week people were actually sunbathing on the beaches and the rocks below the university, the ruins of the old castle and the ancient cemetery.

The last two Opens at St. Andrews, those in 1970 and 1978, had been won by Jack Nicklaus, but this one ended for him quickly. On the first hole of the first round he hit his wedge into the Swilcan Burn, a tiny creek that fronts the green, and got off to a bogey, and ultimately a 76. Nicklaus redeemed himself with decent rounds of 72, 68 and 72, for even par 288 and a tie for 31st place. All was not lost for him, however. On Tuesday morning he dressed up in a black robe and in a moving ceremony received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of St. Andrews.

"The first tee at St. Andrews has never been this tough," said Nicklaus, choked up, attempting to respond to the audience. One of his closer friends said Jack was full of emotion principally because he had never completed his B.A. at Ohio State, and now he had a law degree.

The course was benign this time because of the lack of a brisk wind, and part of St. Andrews' defense is the wind. The Old Course was left to fight back with only history and its tricky greens. Never have so many makable putts been missed by so many great players; otherwise the scores would have been even lower. At times the breeze was confusing and slightly challenging on the inward nine, but it never reached the gale force that can be so much a part of the British Open. No, it was those nagging putts and the thought that this was the oldest of championships on the oldest of golf courses that kept the hallowed ground from being chopped to pieces.

Ballesteros had a considerable gallery of his own in from Spain. "It's great to win at St. Andrews," he said, "and I dedicate this to my mother, Carmen, who saw me win for the first time."

In fact, competitors from lands other than the U.S. dominated play throughout. Greg Norman from Australia and Bill Longmuir, a Brit, were tied with Peter Jacobsen of Portland, Ore. for the first-round lead at 67, five under par. Thursday was also when Baker-Finch's name was introduced. The young Australian, only 23 and handsome as a movie star, turned in a creditable 68. He was expected to disappear immediately, but when he added a blazing 66 on Friday and assumed a three-stroke lead on the field—and with most of the Americans beginning to fall away—the Open took on a curious dimension.

Part of the way through Friday's second round, a look at the leader board made you blink and rub your eyes. For a while eight different nationalities were up there, including Baker-Finch, the Australian; followed by Ballesteros, the Spaniard; Nick Faldo, the Englishman; Langer, the West German; an American or two; and—most suprising of all—a Swede, Anders Forsbrand. St. Andrews must have been tame to the point of submissiveness.

Slowly, Baker-Finch captured everyone's heart and attention. He's 6'4" with a smooth swing, very stylish, and not as rough-edged as your normal Aussie. "I'm not surprised to be leading," he said pleasantly, reminding the public that he had won a New Zealand Open and a West Australian Open, "but I would be surprised to win this."

Those were Baker-Finch's words before the last round began. He quickly eliminated himself with a shot into the burn on the first hole, and then more uncertain shots that sent him out in 41—and off the board. He finished with an overdue 79, tied for ninth place.

Watson, too, suffered a penalty stroke in the final round, needing to take a drop from the gorse on the 12th hole after a hooked tee shot. But he quickly made up for it with a birdie at the 13th, which put him back into the tie with Ballesteros that wouldn't be settled until the end. The day before, Watson had played a near flawless round of 66 that had catapulted him into a tie for the tournament lead with Baker-Finch. He had absolutely mastered St. Andrews with what he called "as fine a round as I've played in several years." It could have been three or four shots better, so close was he to the cups all the way around. After the last round, speaking for himself and, perhaps, for Ballesteros, Watson said, "The British Open, which means the playing conditions, the tradition and the spectators, tends to bring out the best in my game."

The only other golfer to play as splendidly from tee to green was the young and friendly Langer, who looks like either Harpo Marx or Bobby Clampett's cousin. Langer has three different putting grips, one of them cross-handed, and although he used them all, he almost never made anything under 10 feet, or even under five feet. He wound up tied for second with Watson, but in the final round he could never draw close enough to either Watson or Ballesteros to make them think of anyone but each other.

All in all, it was a British Open with a distinctly international flavor from start to finish. And it may not be too flippant to say that it was finally decided when Seve Ballesteros hit a shot like Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson hit one like Ian Baker-Finch.

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