Before 1980 no European golfer had ever won the Masters. Then a young swashbuckling Spaniard named Seve Ballesteros rolled into Augusta
The year was 1980 and this would be the 44th Masters, an invitational tournament which gave the Americans the chance to show off their skills and, all being well for the folks watching on TV, win on home soil.
On all bar two occasions this had been the case. Only Gary Player had broken the deadlock, in 1961 and 1978.
Only four Europeans were in the field – and one of those was an amateur, Peter McEvoy. Mark James was playing in his first and only Masters, while Sandy Lyle was making his debut. Finally, our own reigning Open champion was Seve Ballesteros.
This would be the Spaniard’s fourth appearance in Georgia. His uncle Ramon Sota had finished sixth in 1965, which at the time was the best performance by any European. Hence Seve’s early love affair with Augusta National.
“When I was hitting balls on the range or chips or putts I would always say this is to win the Masters.”
Ballesteros teed off late on the first day with the wind getting up, but nothing could derail the free-flowing Spaniard. He missed just one fairway and picked up seven birdies for a 66 that gave him a share of the lead.
“If I hit the ball well, it doesn’t matter if the wind is blowing or not,” he said. “I play more in England than anywhere else and the wind is always blowing. Players should not be concerned too much with the wind. If you think too much about it, you lose your swing.”
Come Friday the swing had become a little bit lost though the trademark recovery skills were as impressive as they were in winning the Open at Lytham the previous year. The more off line he went, the less of a problem it became.
One green that Seve found was the seventh, the only problem being that he was playing the 17th and a phenomenal hook had left Andy North and David Graham, who were playing the uphill par 4, on the verge of hysterics.
“Are you playing through, or would you like to putt out for an eagle?” Graham asked while North asked about the possibility of playing Seve’s ball given its proximity to the hole.
After a delay of 10 minutes to find a suitable place to drop his ball he took his line over a scoreboard that should have played no part in the hole and whistled a 7-iron to just 15 feet. And knocked it in. He closed out the day with a four-shot lead.
“All hooks, all birdies, they are good drives. It is very boring if it’s just fairway, fairway, fairway. It doesn’t matter where you drive if you make the putt.”
Come the Sunday morning, the only excitement appeared to be whether Ballesteros could shoot 67 and earn a $50,000 bonus from Golf magazine for breaking Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd’s record of 17 under.
I say to myself you better wake up. If I hit the second shot in the water I lose the tournament” “I’ll concentrate on playing the course, being careful. They will have to play very well to beat me. I won’t take any silly chances.”
By the turn he had amassed a 10-shot lead but then he did take unprompted risks. A three-putt bogey at 10 barely raised an eyebrow, likewise a birdie at 11 by his playing partner Jack Newton. Birdies at 13 and 15 and he would still tie the record.
But the Masters is rarely about just tiptoeing your way round the back nine. Ballesteros found Rae’s Creek at the short 12, a hole which had seen Tom Weiskopf chip and putt for a 13 on Thursday before leaving another two balls in there for a seven on the Friday. Newton birdied and the lead was down to five.
At 13 he had an iron left into the par 5, a shot which was caught heavy and which resulted in another visit to the famous strip of water while Newton two-putted for a birdie to be within three of the lead.
“The fight was on the inside. What I say was ‘son of beech!’”
The fight saw him play his recovery from the pine needles at 14 before order was restored at the 15th, the scene of his horror 4 iron six years later, but this time the perfect strike.
“I say to myself you better wake up, things are getting tough. If I hit that second shot in the water I lose the tournament. I hit a very good 4 iron and everything became normal again.”
Aged 23 Ballesteros became the youngest Masters champion, a record only broken by Tiger Woods in 1997.
And so began a run of European magic that will likely never be repeated – we are still waiting for a winner from this continent this century. This year 25 Europeans will contest the year’s opening Major.
Ballesteros won again in 1983 and Messrs Langer (2), Lyle, Faldo (3), Woosnam and Olazabal (2) followed suit as the showpiece of American golf repeatedly ended up in European hands. The folks back home, spoilt by years of Arnie, Jack and Tom had to sit through telecasts explaining where Welwyn Garden City and Oswestry were.
The only real surprise was that Ballesteros never added to his two Green Jackets. By 1983 he was done.
In 1985 he played alongside the eventual winner Bernhard Langer, the following year he eagled the 8th and 13th to move three clear before being reeled in by Nicklaus’ brilliance. The dream had been to win it for his father who had died just months before. Then in 1987 he was trudging back up the hill at the 10th after dropping out of the play-off with Larry Mize and Greg Norman. At least he was spared the Australian’s horror.
As time drifts on it’s all too easy to forget the impact Seve had on this tournament. The Masters was always his birthday week and the vast chunk of Europe’s golf fans would hope he could make it one to remember. Throughout the 1980s he would arrive on Magnolia Lane as the favourite and very much the man to beat, something no other European has done since.
Tom Kite once remarked: “When he gets going, it’s almost as if Seve is driving a Ferrari and the rest of us are in Chevrolets.”
While Seve remains the inspiration for all our Ryder Cup efforts it is at Augusta that he has most left his mark on his fellow Green Jacketeers.
Woods once played a practice round with Seve and Jose Maria Olazabal, a lesson that has stayed with him.
“To hear him explain how to hit shots around Augusta was just artful. How much spin you need to put it here and where you need to land it, where it needs to kick, and the way he explained it, and what he needs to do with the body to do that with the hands. He just understood it.”
Phil Mickelson put together a Spanish meal for his Champions Dinner in 2011 in tribute to the player that he idolised as a youngster. Sadly the man in whose honour it was devised was too unwell to attend and, a month later, no longer with us.
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