Mano A Mano On The Links

Seve Ballesteros
Jacqueline Duvoisin/SI

This article first appeared in thye July 25, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated.

It took gale force winds, a flood and an extra day, but when the 117th British Open was finally over, Seve Ballesteros of Spain had done what he set out to do at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club. Beneath dismal skies on England's northwest coast, he had become the British Open champion for the third time. And in the process, he played with a brilliance that restored him to his rightful place as the game's best player.

Ballesteros's 11-under-par 67-71-70-65—273 beat Nick Price by two shots and gave him his fifth major championship, but it was his first since he won the 1984 British Open at St. Andrews. This was perhaps the sweetest of all, because Ballesteros won with the most controlled, mature golf of his career.

During his record-tying final round on Monday, Ballesteros missed only three fairways and three greens. He added explosiveness to consistency with a six-hole, six-under-par run that left Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle in his wake and set up a classic mano a mano match with Price, the third-round leader. Ballesteros pulled ahead for good at the par-4 16th when he hit a nine-iron shot to within three inches of the hole. He tapped in for his birdie. Then on the 18th he struck a magical chip from the greenside rough, which lipped the hole.

Maybe Ballesteros will now feel free of the pressure he has exerted on himself. At 31, he was beginning to hear whispers that perhaps he was too temperamental, too wild off the tee and too reliant on short-game genius to win any more of golf's biggest prizes. "I was starting to wonder," said a joyful Ballesteros after his victory. "You know, that my time was, you know ..." His voice trailed off, the thought too painful to complete.

Ballesteros needed last week's win before he could admit how deeply his confidence had been shaken by his loss at the 1986 Masters. In the final round there, he was leading by a stroke when he hit a four-iron into the water on the 15th hole. He lost the lead and, ultimately, the tournament to Jack Nicklaus. "Now that shot will be way back in my mind," he said on Monday. "Instead, from now on I will remember how I played today."

So will everyone else, including Price, who closed with a 69. "There's nothing better than playing the standard of golf we played today in a major championship," said Price, whose only serious error of the day was a missed four-footer for par on the 14th.

In the final round, Ballesteros and Price lapped the field, particularly the Americans. The Open was the latest skirmish in the battle for golf supremacy between Europe, with its burgeoning rank and file and such leading lights as Ballesteros, Faldo and Lyle, and the more numerous, less charismatic and allegedly spoiled U.S. pros of the PGA Tour. The Europeans were definitely on the offensive last week, riding the momentum of two consecutive Ryder Cup victories, Lyle's win at the Masters in April and defending British Open champion Faldo's near completion of a transatlantic double at the U.S. Open last month. Although 47 Americans played in the British Open, the favorites weren't Yanks.

"I can't see beyond a European win, and I can't see an American winning," said Tony Jacklin, the captain of Europe's Ryder Cup team, early in the week. "I don't think they're as good as we are now." The tabloids loved the sniping—WE'LL TANK THE YANKS sang London's Daily Mirror—but the European pros thought Jacklin's words went a bit over the top. "Rather a sweeping statement, isn't it?" said Faldo.

Said Tom Watson, the last American to win the Open, in 1983, "Much as I hate to admit it, there's merit to what Tony says."

But most of the American pros took quiet exception to Jacklin's remarks. "I'm going to let my scoring and my clubs do my talking," said U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange. He finished 12 shots back in 13th place; only four Americans did better, the best being Fred Couples and Gary Koch, at 281, tied for fourth. Lanny Wadkins wasn't about to be outbrashed, however. "Obviously, those two Ryder Cups went to Tony's head," he said. "What he said is totally absurd."

Royal Lytham wasn't the best place for Americans to argue their case. Through the glory years of U.S. domination of international golf, from 1926 to '79, no American pro triumphed in the seven British Opens held at Royal Lytham. Bobby Jones, who won as an amateur in '26, is still the only U.S. golfer to have prevailed there.

Squeezed between a neighborhood of neat red brick houses and a railroad track that runs alongside the outward eight holes, Royal Lytham lacks the prehistoric rolls of St. Andrews and the sweeping seascapes of Turnberry. Its most charming feature may be the green-trimmed clubhouse that stands only six paces from the back of the 18th green. Lytham is a straight-ahead course, with almost no blind shots, no elephantine humps on the greens, generous fairways and rough that lets a player advance the ball with more than a wedge. This is not to say that the course doesn't have a quirky personality.

Scoring opportunities must be found on the par-35 front nine; the course has 192 bunkers, and the most dangerous are on the back nine. With a cold force-6 wind blowing off the Irish Sea, Lytham has the toughest finish of the seven British Open courses. A round at Royal Lytham can be likened to an adventurous Friday night in nearby hard-drinking Blackpool: It's easy to go out, but coming home can be a little chancy.

Four of the last five holes are killer par 4s: the 445-yard 14th, the 463-yard 15th, the 462-yard 17th and the 412-yard 18th. Last week all played into the wind, and the average score on each was higher than on the 490-yard par-5 6th.

Ballesteros had conquered Lytham in 1979, when as a 22-year-old he zigzagged the fairways and won by three strokes. "When you win at a place like this, the experience is always in the blood," he said early last week. And he seemed intent on re-creating some of the circumstances that existed when he won nine years ago. His driver, three-wood and sand wedge were the same ones he used in 1979, and on the last day he duplicated the blue-and-white outfit he had worn during his final rounds in '79 and '84. He was accompanied by his fiancee. Carmen Botin, 23, and a new, nonsibling caddie, Ian Wright of England. "My brother Vicente has too much work back in Spain," said Ballesteros. The bettors duly noted that he has never won a major with one of his three brothers carrying his clubs and installed him as an 8-1 co-favorite, with Lyle.

When Ballesteros began the opening round on Thursday morning, the Lancashire sky was darkened by clouds, temperatures were in the high 40's, and winds were gusting to 40 mph—that's force-8. "Oh—," he said to himself. But on the 1st hole he saw a banner hanging from a nearby house beseeching SEVERIANO, GANA POR FAVOR ("Severiano, please win"), and he responded with a six-iron to within two feet of the pin. He birdied that hole; as well as the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th, to go five under. Only a botched four-footer on the 8th kept him from making the turn in 29.

The spell ended on the back nine. On the 14th, Ballesteros pulled his drive and then greedily tried to hit a two-iron 240 yards from tangled rough. The ball went half that distance, coming to rest in a thicket. Ballesteros took a drop 50 yards from where he found his ball and hit a blind seven-iron 125 yards to within 15 feet of the hole. Then, just as in the old days, he holed the putt for a heroic bogey. A pushed drive on 18 resulted in another unplayable lie, but he salvaged another one-putt bogey and a 67, which held up as the first-round lead.

"I don't think even Daniel Boone would play from there," said Ballesteros of his unplayable lies. "One of the great rounds ever in the British Open," said Nicklaus, who opened with a 75, having pulled himself off the bathroom floor that morning. Some "dodgy pasta," as the tabloids put it, eaten the night before, had sent him reeling. Nicklaus would finish 25th.

The temperature was warmer and the wind was lighter for Friday's round, which Ballesteros completed in a cautious 71. He was passed by Price, whose 67 featured an eagle-birdie-birdie run on 6, 7 and 8, and a birdie that might as well have been an eagle at the 15th.

Price, 31, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in Orlando, Fla., and plays the PGA Tour, is known for a fast swing that is capable of producing extraordinary scores and extraordinary collapses. He blew away a strong field to win the 1983 World Series, in Akron, but he also blew a three-shot lead over the last six holes to lose the '82 British Open, at Troon, by a stroke to Watson—a disaster very much on Price's mind at Lytham. In the third round of the '86 Masters, he fired a course-record 63 to share the lead but finished tied for fifth, done in by his own lackluster play and Nicklaus's 65 in the last round.

On Saturday the course was drenched by more than an inch of rain, which flooded three greens, and an Open round was canceled for the first time since 1961, when winds at Royal Birkdale were so strong that tents and trailers were blown over.

By Sunday, all was dry for a classic third round that saw Price shoot a 69 to increase his lead over Ballesteros and Faldo to two strokes. Ballesteros's 70 was marred by the two left-handed swings he needed to extricate himself from the bushes after an errant drive at the 6th. "One for practice, one to get out," he said.

"So far I am beating the pressure," he said after the third round, the tension palpable beneath a rueful smile. "But as you know, the pressure is very difficult to beat."

On Monday, Ballesteros beat it for good. "Neither of us choked or anything like that," he said. "It was very nice."

Ballesteros called his final round "one of those that happen every 25 or 50 years." Was it the best he had ever played? "So far," he answered. Rest assured, Ballesteros believes he has more of the same in him.

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