Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Greatest Open Champion

By Angus Saul

The Open Championship is to be held at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's this year for the 11th time. The links course in Lancashire in North West England is one of the most difficult and technically demanding courses anyone can play at. With Tiger Woods, alongside other pros, complaining about the depth and thickness of the "unplayable" rough, it is interesting to note that only one person has won the Open Championship at this toughest of courses more than once.

It is just over a year since the sad and untimely passing of one of golf's most talented sons. And it is over 30 years since he won his first major at the Royal Lytham and St. Anne's at the tender age of 22.

Rather than looking ahead at who might win this year's Open Championship in an extremely wide, open field of players, where upsets and surprises are becoming as common as books in a library, why not take a moment to look back?

Severiano "Seve" Ballesteros won only five majors, in spite of his tremendous ability. Sometimes it was because he was plagued with injuries, other times because he was pipped at the post at the last moment.

When Jack Nicklaus came out of nowhere to win the 1986 Masters, and Seve, having led for most of the day with -9, dropped away after one poor hole, leaving Nicklaus to fight it out with Greg Norman, who, like Ballesteros, threw away a chance at a first major title. Nicklaus was the best on that day, and it was a day for Seve to forget.

If that was one to forget, then one to remember was surely Seve's first major title, at the 1979 Open Championship. It was apparent from the word go that the young Spaniard was almost incapable of keeping the ball within the confines of the course, as he hooked and sliced his way through the first round, going left, right, and anywhere but center. His first round saw him go two over par — not bad considering some of the places he'd ended up.

The second round, however, was clearly drawing from some of that experience, as he carded a terrific 65, –6 under par, and taking his total up to -4, two shots behind leader Hale Irwin, who had won his second major at the U.S. Open just a month before.

On day three, it looked like any good form previously had simply been luck, as he carded +4 for the day to end even par. Luckily, Irwin's day had been just as bad, and remained leader by just two strokes.

Irwin's final day, however, was abysmal as he carded 78 to finish sixth with a (still very respectable) +5. Seve Ballesteros was set to have another poor day as normal service appeared to resume, before sublime play took him to the top of his game.

When he hit a bunker on the 13th, it appeared as though the other contenders were back in with a shout of closing the gap as he looked sure to bogey the hole. Seve, however, had no such doubts as he produced a shot from the bunker that flew 70 yards, and followed it up with a sensational 30-foot putt for birdie, protecting the two shot cushion he had.

On the 16th, as the finish line was in sight, things took a turn for the worse as a poor drive floated into the car park. Attendants began playing Tetris with the cars to allow Seve's approach shot. And what an approach it was.

From about as far right as he could be, he brought the ball back onto the green with what is one of the most magical moments golf has ever seen, before putting away for birdie. Two more holes and a first major championship was his.

It was at the Royal Lytham and St. Anne's that Seve captured the hearts and imagination of the public, and 11 years later, when he took his fifth and final major on the same course, he did it again. Ballesteros was one of the most loved golfers of his generation, and his spark and talent is sorely missed by many.

But it is here at the R&A in cold and rainy Lancashire that his magic was brought before the people and admired. Can anyone fill these enormous, empty shoes left behind? I think not. But can anyone seize a single moment that will inspire golfers of generations to come? We can only hope.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009