Dramatic finish made this year's British Open a memorable one
The golfing world will long remember the 113th British Open Championship at St. Andrews, won by Severiano Ballesteros of Spain with a birdie three on the final hole, or, if you prefer, lost by Tom Watson of the United States with a shot too strong on the 17th.
Watson was chasing a sixth victory in this historic tournament, which would have placed him on a par with the legendary Harry Vardon and ahead of any other player of the past 50 years. (Australia's Peter Thomson has also won five times.)
Ballesteros now has won twice. And he won this tournament with a record total for a St. Andrews Open - 276 to Kel Nagle's 278 in the centenary Open of 1960. He won before record crowds for any British Open, some 188,000 people having paid to watch this marvelous contest played with perfect sportsmanship in perfect weather - calm days in a wild country - on the oddest as well as one of the oldest of all the world's golf courses.
This was indeed the World Open. At one period during the second round, players on the leader board represented Australia, the United States, West Germany, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, and Sweden.
At that time and until the final round the lead was held by a new contender, young Ian Baker-Finch of Australia, current holder of the New Zealand title. On the first hole of the last round, however, Ian put his second shot into the burn fronting the green, just as Jack Nicklaus had done in the first round. Nicklaus, who was playing for an unprecedented third win at St. Andrews, never really recovered from his mishap, and neither did young Baker-Finch.
Great Britain's Nick Faldo, well in contention then, missed a simple short putt on that same first green in the third round to distress himself out of a chance of victory. But he showed strength of character to score 69, three under par, in the final round and finish tied for fourth place.
West Germany's Bernhard Langer might well have won had he been as consistent a putter as Faldo or Watson. He would surely have won had he been as inspirational a putter as Ballesteros.
Viewers in 37 countries watching on TV saw Seve's burst of jubilant excitement as his 15-foot putt on the 18th, which looked to be just a shade off-line, hestitated for a millisecond and then dropped into the side of the hole. The Spaniard knew in his heart that this had won him the tournament, no matter what Watson did.
Actually, Tom by rights should have notched a birdie three on the previous hole and given himself a chance of victory or a playoff no matter what Seve had done. He had played the bravest tee shot of the whole tournament on that extraordinarily dangerous 17th, right over the center of the roofs of what used to be railroad sheds and now have been replaced by the old course golf and country club. His rival had driven left into rough. Tom's drive landed in exactly the perfect spot on the fairway.
Seve, who had not played this hole very well in the previous three rounds, hit a superb shot out of the long grass, giving him a certain par. Tom now needed only his bread-and-butter shot, a straight lofted iron shot to the center of the green. Did he take the wrong club? Did he hit the right one too strongly? One cannot say, but his ball shot off the hard turf in front of the green, ran down a bank and against a stone wall
His chance to make history - most wins in the British Open, equal to Harry Vardon - had gone for another year at least.
You could say it was a cruel twist. But that's golf. In so many ways it is the mirror game of life. Most of the time you make your own breaks, but when you don't, you play the ball as it lies. If you meet adversity you play to triumph over it. It's up to you. Nobody else can play your shots for you.
And this old St. Andrews course, the traditional home of golf, is just the setting for these aspects of the game. Like opportunity, the fairways are wide open for everyone. But there are hidden pitfalls, uneven bounces. On many holes you cannot actually see the target for your second or third shot.
At St. Andrews the golfer must know exactly what he or she wants to do and then get as near perfection as possible in trying to do it.
The great Bobby Jones tore up his card in anger the first time he played the course. But he came to love it, to win here in the year of his Grand Slam, and later when he returned to play a friendly round to have the whole town shut down and hurry to the links just to welcome him.
Before this tournament some experts had thought St. Andrews was too short, too old-fashioned for a modern Open championship. Unless the rains came or the fife wind blew, they said, everyone would break 70 every round. But the rain didn't come. The fife wind didn't blow. The course was at its easiest. Many did break 70. But many more didn't. And now the talk turned to the possibility of holding the Open every year at St. Andrews.
For at the end the roster of leading players was a role of honor - Ballesteros, Watson, Langer, Fred Couples, Lanny Wadkins, Faldo, Greg Norman, Mark McCumber, Graham Marsh, Sam Torrance, Ronan Rafferty, Hugh Baiocchi, and Baker-Finch.
Rafferty, a newcomer from Ireland, and the surprising Baker-Finch, both very young, may very well be great players in the making.
Perhaps we shall see next year when the Open returns south to the wild links of Sandwich in Kent, where the tests may be equally severe.