Seve Ballesteros was not having a great year in 1984. By the time the Open began in July, he had failed to win a tournament all season. He had even gone to the Masters as the defending champion and missed the cut. As a record crowd flocked to St Andrews, many golf fans wondered if the 27-year-old would be able to reverse his fortunes at the Home of Golf.
Nick Faldo was hoping to end Great Britain’s 15-year wait for an Open champion and Greg Norman – who had been runner-up at the US Open a month earlier – was attracting attention. Yet it was hard to look beyond Tom Watson, who was aiming to win his third Open in a row and equal Harry Vardon’s record of six titles. Watson was top of the US money list for the season and, at 5/1, the overwhelming favourite.
“We are all agreed, I take it, that by next Sunday evening we shall be celebrating Tom Watson’s achievement of equalling Harry Vardon’s record six victories,” wrote Peter Dobereiner in his pre-tournament preview for the Guardian. “We can be certain that the Road Hole will again play a decisive part in settling the outcome of this Open. I can hardly wait to watch its mischief.”
Dobereiner was wrong about Watson, but right about the par-four 17th. It became a leading character in the tournament’s drama. Jack Nicklaus called the hole a “par four and a half” before the first round, adding: “If you get two fours and two fives in a tournament you can be pleased.”
As is often the case, a relatively unknown player excelled in the opening round – think Nick Job in 1981, Bobby Clampett in 1982 or Wayne Stephens in 1989 – with Scottish golfer Bill Longmuir making a name for himself on the opening day in 1984. Longmuir hit a five-under-par 67 on the first day to take an overnight lead alongside Norman and Peter Jacobsen.
Norman had reached six under at one stage, but a bogey at 17 checked his progress, just as it did with a lot of the field. Ballesteros had his own battle with the 17th on the opening day, producing a fantastic up and down to secure “a bogey that felt like a birdie” on his way to a three-under 69. Watson had a torrid time on the 17th, taking 11 shots at the hole over the first two days. Longmuir’s dream turned into a nightmare on day two, also falling prey to the 17th hole. Having reached the hole on nine-under par, he went out of bounds, could only manage a seven and never recovered.
Ian Baker-Finch emerged as a surprise leader at the halfway point. The 23-year-old Australian – who was playing in his first major – was 10-under par before the weekend, which gave him a three-shot lead over Ballesteros, Faldo and Lee Trevino. Watson was lurking dangerously, five shots behind Baker-Finch.
Initially, the pressure did not appear to impact Baker-Finch. When he moved to -13 at the fifth hole on Saturday afternoon, he led the Open by four shots, yet Watson gradually started to crank through the gears. Three bogeys from Baker-Finch on the back nine, combined with a round of 66 for Watson – “one of the best rounds of golf I have ever played,” he said – meant the pair were tied at -11 going into the final day.
With Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer trailing by two shots before the final round, it looked like a four-horse race for the Open. However, as the day progressed, it became apparent that the battle was between Ballesteros and Watson. Langer missed putt after putt and Baker-Finch experienced the day from hell. The Australian found the Swilcan Burn on the first hole and never recovered. His 79 meant he finished the weekend with a share of ninth place. The disappointment proved useful in the long run, though, and he went on to lift the Claret Jug in 1991.
On a memorable final day at St Andrews, Ballesteros and Watson took turns to top the leaderboard. After 70 holes each, the situation was clear: they were tied on -11 and faced a moment of destiny with the Road Hole. Ballesteros had bogeyed the 17th three times already in the tournament but, playing before Watson on Sunday, he hit a memorable six iron from the rough to the front of the green. “That was the shot that won the Open,” noted David Davies in the Guardian. Ballesteros secured his par with two putts and, as Davies put it, he “marched on to the 18th tee, jaw jutting”.
Looking back after his tee shot at 18, Ballesteros spotted Watson ideally placed on the 17th fairway. “Well, Watson is on the fairway and Watson is Watson,” Ballesteros thought to himself at the time. “He is going to make a par and he can make a birdie at any time. We need something better than a four. It’s a birdie to win.”
Yet Watson seemed unusually indecisive as he stood over his 210-yard second shot at the 17th. “I had the perfect angle to attack the pin, but I was not sure of the club I needed,” he reflected later. “At first I thought it was a three iron, then I went for a two iron, but I pushed it. I knew as soon as I hit it that it was a bad shot.” Watson looked on in horror as his shot bounced across the road and ending perilously close the wall. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” said BBC commentator Bruce Critchley. “Watson had been faced with a real championship-or-not shot and, for once in his glorious year, he made a mess of it.”
Ballesteros was unaware of Watson’s struggles, concentrating on the task of hitting a birdie three at the last to clinch the Open. His second shot left him 15 feet from the hole and set up one of the most iconic moments in sporting history. Writing in his autobiography, Ballesteros recalled: “The putt had a clear borrow to the left, but as I struck the ball, I felt I had overdone it. I hadn’t. 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.”
As he punched the air and shouted “la meti” (“I put it in”), an infectious smile spread across his face. “This was the happiest moment of my sporting life,” said Ballesteros. “My most fantastic shot. So much so that the picture of me gesturing in triumph is now the logo for my companies.”
Having bogeyed the 17th, Watson needed an eagle – and a miracle – at the last hole to equal Ballesteros’ score of -12 (a new Open record at the Old Course). He could only par the 18th and finished joint runner-up with Langer on -10. For Watson, that final round at St Andrews seemed to be the day the music died. His form slumped and he missed out on the US team for the Ryder Cup the following year. He never won another major. The one that got away at the Home of Golf must have hit him hard. The one that got away in 2009 crushed a lot of us, though.
Yet one man’s sorrow is another man’s joy. “I can’t tell you just what it means to win at St Andrews,” said Ballesteros. “It’s the best tournament in the world and the best course in the world.”
The 1984 Open will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first major I watched and the sight of Seve punching the air hooked me for life, as he instantly became a hero in my eyes. I was devastated when he died in 2011, but we’ll always have the memories of what he did for European golf, his Ryder Cup exploits, his Masters wins and his impossible escapes. And we’ll forever be grateful for that Sunday afternoon in 1984 when his smile lit up St Andrews.