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It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

Seve Ballesteros wins 1984 British Open
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.

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