Major triumphs are often punctuated by unforgettable emotional reactions. Hale Irwin’s high-fiving victory lap at Medinah; Payne Stewart’s statuesque punchout at Pinehurst; Ben Crenshaw’s doubled-over sobs at Augusta; Larry Mize’s leaps; Tiger Woods’ many fist pumps; Arnie flinging his cap; Jack flinging his ball … the list goes on.
But for sheer unbridled and authentic joy, Seve Ballesteros’s bouncing roar before punching the sky when his birdie putt tumbled over the edge of the cup at St. Andrews in 1984 is a standard that’s hard to beat.
“This was the happiest moment of my whole sporting life,” Ballesteros said in his autobiography. “My moment of glory, my most fantastic shot. So much so that picture of me gesturing in triumph is now the logo of my companies.”
Seve won five – and lost more – majors with such flamboyant audacity that it would seem impossible to rank them. But he called the 1984 Open Championship at the Old Course “my deepest emotional experience in my golfing life.” He was hungry to add his name to the exclusive registry of winners at St. Andrews, as he had already done at other shotmakers’ venues held in such sacred esteem as Augusta National and Royal Melbourne.
It shown through in the moment as he lurked on a decorated weekend leaderboard filled with former and soon-to-be major champs, including Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Lanny Wadkins, Fred Couples and Greg Norman. Sunday dawned as essentially a four-man battle with co-leaders Tom Watson and Ian Baker-Finch at 11-under par, two ahead of Bernhard Langer and Ballesteros with nobody else closer than seven shots of the lead.
Baker-Finch, an Open rookie who would win the Claret Jug in 1991, showed his links acumen for three days before quickly fading from the picture in the Sunday glare. It was always Watson, however, who was the man to beat.
Defending his wins in both 1982 (Troon) and ’83 (Birkdale), Watson was poised to join Harry Vardon as the only six-time Champion Golfer of the Year. His Saturday 66 vaulted him into the final pairing and branded him the favorite.
Ballesteros, however, was undaunted as he confidently told the press after his Saturday interview, “I’ll see you all here tomorrow.”
“It was obvious I didn’t mean I was going to be there as runner-up,” he later said. “I’d beaten Watson in the Masters the year before and, though I thought Langer was very good, I didn’t think he was ready to win a major yet.”
While Langer loitered in contention all day, the showdown ultimately developed between Ballesteros and Watson in successive groups. After a birdie on No. 5, Seve gained a share of the lead when Watson bogeyed the fourth behind him. Another birdie at 8 gave Ballesteros his first outright Open lead since winning at Royal Lytham & St Annes five years earlier.
“I dressed for the kill – just like a bullfighter.” – Seve Ballesteros
Watson reclaimed and re-lost the lead. After each poured birdies in on top of each other at 13 and 14, respectively, they sat tied at 11 under in the evening chill. That’s when Ballesteros went into his golf bag and pulled out the navy sweater he’d worn when he won his first Claret Jug in 1979.
“I dressed for the kill – just like a bullfighter,” he later said.
As often is the case at the Old Course, the fortunes of the leaders came down to the Road Hole. Ballesteros had walked off the 17th green each of the previous days with three of his five total bogeys on the week. As he’d done every round, he drove left away from trouble.
“I knew I had to get par,” he said.
This time he bounced his 6-iron approach safely onto the front of the green, where he two-putted for a precious par. When he looked back, he saw Watson standing on the right edge of the fairway with a perfect angle to the green.
Watson, however, was indecisive before finally ripping his 2-iron long and right. It bounded over the road and within a couple feet of the stone wall, from which he was only able to punch long past the hole and made bogey.
“I just hit a terrible shot,” Watson would later concede. “I pushed it 30 yards right of where I was trying to hit it. It wasn’t even close. I was trying to land the ball on the green like an idiot from an uphill lie. Sometimes you make the wrong decisions.”
With a one-shot lead, Ballesteros told his caddie they needed a birdie at 18 to guarantee victory.
“As we say in Spain, don’t sell the bearskin before you’ve caught the bear,” said Ballesteros, a more mature and strategic player at 27 than he was when he broke on the scene as a teenager. “The first rule of golf is you must control your emotions. You should never imagine yourself holding the trophy before the game is over. Golf is too unpredictable.”
Ballesteros pitched to 15 feet, and his swinging right-to-left putt barely fell over the right edge of the hole and elicited his joyous celebration, punching the sky in salute to the fans packed around the corner of the Auld Grey Toon.
Watson failed to make the necessary eagle to force a playoff and ultimately shared second with Langer at 10 under. Seve’s climactic putt was the iconic moment that endured.
“It rolled sweetly towards the hole, then seemed to hover on the edge of the cup, before finally going in as if in slow motion, perhaps impelled by my powers of mental suggestion, so strong was my desire that it should drop in,” Ballesteros later said. “When the ball dropped in, I knew I was the champion.”
Top: Seve Ballesteros after his Open Championship-clinching putt in 1984: “The happiest moment of my sporting life.” Photo: Michael Joy, R&A via Getty Images
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