Welcome to the British Open. Welcome to the American graveyard.
Welcome to Blackpool and the frigid Lancashire coast. And tie your
head on before the wind off the Irish Sea blows it away, as it did
everything else last week except dashing Severiano Ballesteros of
Every few years the Open is played at Royal Lytham and St. Annes,
there as elsewhere to decide the "champion golfer"--as the Royal
and Dandruff Golfing Society would have it. And every few years at
Lytham somebody from South Africa or Australia or New Zealand or
England wins. You may now add Spain to the list.
Last week an American, Hale Irwin, was all set to win it for about
three days. On Saturday, in the final round, another American, Ben
Crenshaw, was all set to win it for about three hours. Jack
Nicklaus even had an outside chance to win it for a few minutes.
But none of them came up with the special dizzy kind of game that
Lytham required last week. Only 22-year-old Ballesteros was capable
of that, and he saw to it that this strange old links would remain
a mystery to every American who has tried to conquer it since Bobby
Jones beat Lytham in 1926.
Ballesteros, the youngest British Open champion in 86 years, won
with brute strength, a deft putting touch and incomparable-luck at
finding his ball in trampled-down broom, scrub willow, blue-bells
and heather. But he didn't actually nail down the coffin lid on his
American challengers until the final holes of a wild last round.
The tournament began, as British Opens are apt to, with the
emergence of a character. At Lytham it was Bill Longmuir of the
lorry-driving, personality-contest-dazzling, Nigerian Open-winning,
non-golfing Longmuirs. Longmuir became the big story of the opening
round on Wednesday by shooting a 65 from out of nowhere and taking
a three-stroke lead on Irwin.
There seem always to be Longmuirs in the British Open, each of whom
quickly disappears into the gorse. But they are fun while they
last. This Longmuir, a devilishly handsome 26-year-old, was more
fun than most, and he hung in there longer than most. On Saturday
he was only five shots back before shooting an 82 to finish 30th.
In 1976 he had won the Nigerian Open while a small war was going on
there. "We were told to play gingerly around the 12th hole, which
was near the army barracks and the rifle fire, you see," he said.
Earlier that year, Longmuir drove a furniture lorry, and in his
ventures into personality contests he had won the titles of Mr.
Basildon and Mr. Talk of the South. In one such contest he was
required to teach a golf swing to a professional stripper named
Fiona Richards. "It was quite nice standing behind her," he said.
And how was her swing? "Rather lumpy."
The gallery at Lytham also had a distinctive personality. Blackpool
is a resort catering to the workingman on holiday and he was out on
the links in force. There were record crowds, even in the horrid
weather--it was wet as well as cold and windy--and they became more
mob-like as the tournament progressed. They tore over the
crosswalks, spilled out of the grandstands, shouted, cheered and
even jeered at players they had not bet on. A pub behind the ninth
green was a rowdy place indeed, where the competitors often heard
calls of "Miss it! Miss it!" as they bent over their putts.
Irwin gave the blokes his fist on Friday as he struggled through
the third round, trying to fight off Ballesteros and the weather.
Sally, his wife, smoldered all the way around Lytham in anger,
saying later, "Heckling is cheating."
No American has ever been heard to say that he likes Lytham, which
may have something to do with why no American has won there since
Jones. Lytham appears to be the special province of the world at
large: Ballesteros, South Africa's Bobby Locke (1952), Australia's
Peter Thomson (1958), New Zealand's Bob Charles (1963), England's
Tony Jacklin (1969) and then South African Gary Player (1974), who
that year was not preoccupied with having a son playing in the
threesome ahead of him. Wayne Player, 17 and feisty, was one of
only two amateurs to survive the first cut at Lytham. He is a
talented young golfer who has not only inherited his father's
competitive nature (on the first day he shot a 75 to Gary's 77) but
also has already learned how to brighten up for cameras.
Lytham's front nine and back nine are as different as two halves of
a golf course can be. The front goes downwind along a railway
track, surrendering birdies like pork pies, weirdly featuring par-3
holes at the first and ninth and back-to-back par 5s reachable with
a seven-iron. But the course turns homeward with a series of par 4s
you often can't get near with cannons, and the competitor at Lytham
learns to think of par as 33-38 instead of the 35-36 it is meant to
play to. On top of all this, Lytham's narrow fairways and tiny
greens make it the most confining of all the British Open courses.
As graveyards go, there has seldom been one in golf like Lytham's
back nine last week. Only once was it bruised, and that was on
Thursday when Ballesteros fired his own 65, a round electrified by
the four birdies he made over the last five holes. Ballesteros
managed it with a combination of bold play and luck, chipping in
for one birdie at the murderous 15th, holing a long putt at the
murderous 17th and getting destiny's bounce for a gimme three at
the 18th, which sits hard by the gin drinkers in the old red-brick
From the beginning it seemed likely that Saturday's last few holes
would settle things. Quite obviously a man could lose or gain
enormous ground from, say, the 12th hole to the clubhouse warmth,
particularly over the last four holes. Anyone within four strokes
of the leader with four holes to play had a right to think of
himself as a serious contender.
The round began with Irwin two strokes ahead of Ballesteros, three
ahead of Nicklaus and a mustachioed Englishman named Mark James,
four ahead of Crenshaw and a beknickered Australian named Rodger
Davis, and five ahead of Tom Watson. The Americans appeared to be
in good shape. If Irwin succumbed to the cold and wind--he wore two
sweaters, a shirt and "intimate apparel" underneath against that
risk--Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Watson were poised. In the first three
days Nicklaus had lost 10 strokes to par on the back nine alone,
but how long could that continue? Crenshaw was playing superbly,
flirting with low rounds all the way. Watson was always a
possibility. And, in any case, Irwin had proven himself a durable
front-runner as recently as June, when he won the U.S. Open.
So there was enough American talent to derail the Spaniard. But
Irwin promptly double-bogeyed the second hole and began working his
way to a 78; Watson double-bogeyed the third and the seventh and
started his unmerry trek toward a miserable 81; and Nicklaus
bogeyed the fourth, ensuring that getting a 72 was going to be
uphill all the way. Only his perseverance on the back nine enabled
him to become a runner-up in the British Open for the seventh time.
Despite these disasters, for a long while it looked as if another
American, the appealing Crenshaw, might finally win his first major
title after coming so close in the past. Through 13 holes he was
three under par on the round. Even after a sloppy bogey at the
14th, he was tied with Ballesteros for the lead on the 17th tee,
still two under on the day, and one could hear again what Jerry
Pate had said to Crenshaw the previous evening: "Gentle, you're my
pick tomorrow. I believe you can rope-a-dope that old hook of yours
right into victory lane." Pate had put three different sports into
one sentence, proving he was from Alabama. Yet toward the end what
he said seemed prophetic. But Crenshaw mis-clubbed himself out of
the rough on the 17th, hit into a bunker, then into another, then
missed a short putt, and the consequent double bogey reeled him to
71. It was a fine score, just as his previous rounds of 72, 71 and
72 had been. But it was only good enough to leave him in a tie with
Nicklaus at 286.
It was over that horrible last stretch of holes that Ballesteros
put his own mark on the tournament. He kept driving the ball
prodigious distances to out-of-the-way places. But he always seemed
to find it, and most often when he arrived on the greens he dropped
his putts. History must record that Ballesteros played Saturday's
last seven holes in one under par--indeed, he played the last four
holes in one under par while catastrophe befell the rest.
With his strength and putting touch, there is no telling how many
British Opens Ballesteros can win now that he knows how. There are
no tall trees to keep him from driving the ball all over the
landscape without having some kind of shot left to the green. On
the day Seve shot his 65, he did not hit a tee shot into a
fairway--on the "cut part," as they say--until the 14th hole. He
can get away with that on British Open courses, not in America.
Those last few holes on Saturday were typical of how Ballesteros
plays golf. He was nowhere near the par-3 12th green after a
soaring two-iron that wanted to go to Ireland but hit a steep bank.
He pitched up and rolled in a five-foot putt for par. He was
nowhere near the cup with his second shot at the 13th, but he holed
a 20-footer for a birdie. He drove into a car park at 16 and got a
free drop--then made a birdie. He drove wildly into unidentifiable
flora on the 17th, gouged his way short of the green and chipped 12
feet past the hole, but he rapped the putt in for a routine par.
And that was the championship. Those were the shots--along with
Crenshaw's calamity--that gave him his three-shot lead. His par 4
at the 18th was a celebration. His final-round 70 and his 283 total
were proof positive that accuracy at Lytham is not necessarily a
Earlier in the week Ballesteros had said, "We should play British
Open without fairways, then I come close to win." After the
victory, with his three brothers weeping with joy, he said, "I
don't aim for the rough, it just goes there. My caddie tell me
close the eyes and hit it. Maybe I go into fairway."
The fact is, with his driver Ballesteros hit nine
fairways--nine--in 72 holes of golf. He hit one on Saturday. One.
They had played a British Open without fairways after all. At least
they weren't necessary for Ballesteros, whose style of golf matched
Lytham perfectly and kept it an American graveyard.