The British Open

Searching for Seve

The Open returns to a reupholstered Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where prospective winners will be looking to invoke the spirit of the champion

July 2012

When 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros won the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, he was the youngest winner of the title since Willie Auchterlonie in 1893.

Seve used his driver nine times in the last round and found the fairway once. He drove into a bunker on 13, the right rough on 14, the left rough on 15. On 16, he sliced his tee shot so far right that the ball finished among some cars that weren't supposed to be there. (Seve claimed he hit it there on purpose.) His drive went into the right rough on 17, the left rough on 18. Not a fairway was found on those last six holes, yet by some mysterious force of will, time and again he was able to coerce the ball onto the green and into the hole. He navigated those six holes in one under par, for a three-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw. It was Ballesteros' first major-championship title.

Seve played a bold, effervescent game. He was a man of passion and panache, the new Arnold Palmer, a "bomb and gouge" player decades before that term was invented. As he was Spanish, there were inevitable comparisons with matadors. He was a conjuror of extraordinary shots, a battler, a scrambler, a competitor. He was in 15 greenside bunkers during that week at Lytham, and he got up and down from 14 of them. The R&A's chairman of the championship committee that year, Colin Maclaine, said Seve chose not to use the course that had been prepared "but preferred his own, which mainly consisted of hay fields, car parks, grandstands, dropping zones and even ladies' clothing." At the prize-giving, Seve said simply: "I play good from the rough -- I have plenty of practice."

When the Open returned to Lytham, in 1988, a more mature Seve was victorious again, winning his fifth major title. Nick Price had a two-stroke overnight lead and played the last round beautifully, closing with a 69 -- normally enough to win. Price played one six-hole stretch on the last day, from the sixth through the 11th, in four under. Seve torched through it in six under. At 16, the decisive 3 Seve made was in stark contrast to his infamous 1979 parking-lot birdie: 1-iron down the middle, 9-iron to three inches, tap-in. His magician's chip from left of the last green lipped out, leaving a tap-in for a 65 and victory.

"It is the best round of my life," Seve said. "I played as good as you can hope to play this game." It was the pinnacle of his major-championship career. But also the end of it -- he never won another. Seve, felled by a brain tumor, passed away in May of last year at 54. As the Open returns this July to Lytham, Seve's happiest hunting ground, we salute this lost champion of the links.

Seve Ballesteros
The 1988 Open was Seve's best major win. And his last.
Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images


Royal Lytham & St. Annes is just outside the Victorian seaside resort town of Blackpool -- nowadays resembling a kind of British Coney Island -- at the northern end of a superb seam of links-land. Traveling south, it's a 70-mile drive around the Ribble Estuary, down the Southport coast, through Liverpool, over the Mersey, along the edge of the Wirral Peninsula and on to the English/Welsh border. It's a drive that takes in innumerable classic links: Royal Birkdale, Hillside, Southport & Ainsdale, Formby and Royal Liverpool, to name just a few.

Few golfers, however, fall in love with Royal Lytham at first sight. There are no voluptuous, towering sand dunes, no stirring sea views. The closest the course gets to the water is the ninth tee, which is three city blocks -- 500 yards -- from the shoreline. Since the course was laid out in 1897, the suburban towns of St. Annes and Lytham have swelled, conjoined and surrounded the links, which, bordered on its south side by the Blackpool-Preston railroad, is literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

The course was originally laid out by George Lowe, a former apprentice clubmaker to Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews. Lowe was Lytham's first professional and designer of many courses in northwest England, including Royal Birkdale. Master golf-course architect Harry Colt revamped Lytham in 1919, adding length, new greens and tees, and many of today's characteristic bunkers. But Lowe's basic routing remains. Seven of the greens are in their original location.

This is a hard, flinty old links, a place where you will be sternly punished for wayward approach shots: "A beast of a course," Bernard Darwin wrote, "but a just beast." A lot of the beastliness lies in its bunkers, 205 of them, most with near-vertical, stacked-sod faces, the kind of insidious hellholes that can elicit tirades from even the gentlest of golfers.

"Comparing all the Open courses, I think it's the most difficult," Peter Thomson says by phone from his home in Melbourne, Australia. Thomson, now 82, won the fourth of his five Opens at Lytham in 1958, despite suffering from acute asthmatic hay fever that week. "The course is narrow, with small greens, small targets, and all those bunkers. The ball's going to bounce, and you have to anticipate the bounce and judge it. It's really a very punishing course. I put it at the top of the list. In every way it's a championship course. It will bring out the best player, without a doubt."

The unusual front nine has three par 3s, including, uniquely in championship golf, the first hole. The nine runs for the most part from northwest to southeast -- the same direction as the prevailing wind. Traditionally, Open competitors have made their scores going out -- assuming they can avoid the out-of-bounds that runs down the slicer's side of most of the front nine. In the history of the Open, the front nine at Lytham has given up more sub-30 scores than any other nine on the rota. (It has happened 12 times, five of them at Lytham, though the record, a 28 by Denis Durnian, was at Royal Birkdale in 1983.)

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