We do not yet have a Masters to analyse with 2020 hindsight, but we should take the chance to recall two great characters, Severiano Ballesteros, the winner 40 years ago, and the flamboyant Doug Sanders, who has died aged 86.
One was a multiple major champion while the other famously failed to land one of the big four titles that define professional careers. Both men, though, will always be remembered by anyone who cares for the game of golf.
‘I was comfortable – then I was in trouble’
Ballesteros’ Augusta victory on 13 April, 1980 proved a watershed moment for Europe. Until then, only South African Gary Player – on three occasions – had broken the United States’ stranglehold on the Masters.
But here came a storming Seve, the reigning Open champion, a flamboyant Spanish matador in the midst of becoming golf’s lead character of the era.
“As soon as I got there and took a look at the golf course, I had the feeling that I was going to win the Masters,” Ballesteros later recalled. “I said to myself, ‘hey, this is your tournament’.”
His confidence was well founded. Ballesteros, at the age of 23, completed a wire to wire victory. It should have been one of the most straightforward wins ever accomplished at Augusta National.
But this was Seve and uncomplicated serenity was never his style. He opened with a brilliant 66 and shared a two-stroke lead with Australia’s David Graham and rookie Jeff Mitchell of the United States.
By the end of the second round, where Ballesteros scored a three-under-par 69, he was out on his own – five strokes clear of Graham and Rex Caldwell. A day later, the lead was seven after a 68 took him to 13 under par.
Augusta was made for the big-hitting Spaniard. There was room for occasional wide hitting, and the slick undulating greens provided scope for his extraordinary wedge wizardry to separate himself from the rest of the field.
The course is also golf’s most dramatic stage, which suited to a tee Ballesteros’ sense of occasion and unquenchable desire for glory.
Seve was romping towards the Masters title. There was a $50,000 bonus put up by a golf magazine for anyone who could beat the then record score of 17 under par and with nine holes to play the 1980 leader was close.
Ballesteros was at 16 under on the 10th tee and 10 strokes clear of the field. “I played the last round not thinking I was [starting]seven shots ahead,” he explained.
“I was concentrating on my own scoring. I was not worried about anyone else because the whole tournament would depend on me.”
And we know that no Masters is complete until the back nine on Sunday has been negotiated. “I was comfortable – 10 shots is a lot,” Ballesteros said. “Then I was uncomfortable, I’m in trouble.”
The trouble began on the short 12th when he found water off the tee. Then came the par-five 13th and another drowning in Rae’s Creek. An hour after going 10 strokes ahead, Seve’s advantage was down to three.
“It did cross my mind that there was a big possibility to lose the Masters,” Ballesteros admitted. “So I said: ‘Seve you have to wake up and be tough from now on.'”
The next par five was crucial. That 15th hole, with the carry over the water, must have been so intimidating given earlier misfortunes on what was now the most tortuous of back-nines.
“If I hit the second shot in the water, I lose the tournament,” Ballesteros said. “I hit it on the green 15 feet away and two putts – and thanks to that I won.”
Ballesteros went on to win by four shots – becoming, at the time, the youngest Masters champion, taking a record set 17 years earlier by Jack Nicklaus, and which would be taken from the Spaniard 17 years later by Tiger Woods.
Europe had well and truly arrived at the Masters. Ballesteros won again in 1983, Germany’s Bernhard Langer collected the first of his two titles in 1985, Sandy Lyle was Britain’s first winner in 1988, and was succeeded by three-times champion Sir Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.
Ballesteros’ compatriot and Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal won the first of his two Masters titles in 1994 but only after reading a note left in his locker prior to the final round.
“Be patient today,” Ballesteros had written. “Remember, you are the best player. Wait for the others to make their mistakes and you will win.”
These were prophetic words from a figure whose spirit has run through European golf ever since he landed the continent’s first Green Jacket.
‘I never got so many letters as I did after The Open’
We knew Ballesteros would be a huge star from the moment he so imaginatively chipped between the bunkers to finish second to Johnny Miller at The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1976.
That was one of those occasions where you do not only remember the winner. And the same applied in 1970 when Doug Sanders had a tiny putt at the last to grab the winner’s Claret Jug at St Andrews.
He missed. A day later, he lost an 18 hole play-off to Nicklaus. But this larger-than-life character, from Cedartown in Georgia, was never forgotten.
Known as the ‘Peacock of the Fairways’ for his vibrant dress sense, Sanders was like Ballesteros in the way that he endeared himself to fans wherever he played.
“I never got so many letters and wires than after the Open,” he later recalled. “They came from people who said they felt so bad to see me miss winning. Many of them weren’t even signed, just ending with ‘A Fan’.”
Sanders won 20 PGA Tour titles and was four times a runner-up in majors, none more agonisingly than when he three-putted that closing green at the Home of Golf 50 years ago.
Golf fans lost Ballesteros far too early when he died from a brain tumour at the age of 54 in 2011. Now they mourn Sanders, another of those great personalities who significantly drove the popularity of the sport.