Backspin: Wentworth 1991
Matt Cooper recalls how Seve conquered Monty and a host of demons to finally win the PGA Championship back in 1991.
Throughout his great career Severiano Ballesteros always enjoyed playing on the West Course at Wentworth – the sight of him striding the fairways of the Surrey club on his way to winning six World Matchplay titles being one of the iconic images of European golf in the 1980s.
But, as Ernie Els would find years later, dominance of matchplay events played on the course didn’t guarantee success in strokeplay tournaments.
Seve had won the PGA Championship before, but that victory came at Royal St George’s in 1983, one year before the event settled permanently at Wentworth.
And as the Spanish superstar approached the start of the 1991 season it wasn’t just a strokeplay tournament in Surrey he couldn’t win – he was beginning to wonder if he could win anything at all.
He had ended the 1980s in a blaze of glory, claiming eight titles in the final two years of the decade including a magnificent defeat of Nick Price and Nick Faldo in the Open Championship of 1988.
But 1990 had reaped just one win (early in the season) and he had finished outside the top 10 in the European Order of Merit for the first time since 1975.
As the nights grew dark, the whispers became louder, implying that Seve was finished as a force.
The man who had revolutionised European golf entered the winter in a thunderous mood, unable to comprehend the dire state of his game, consumed by dark thoughts about his apparently diminished talent.
Determined, proud and desperate to reverse the decline, Ballesteros threw himself into a pre-season training schedule of gruelling workouts, long runs and brutal cycle rides in the mountains.
But when the season started and his form failed to reflect the effort he had put in, the despondency returned – the season stretched a long way ahead of him and he was low in spirits.
At which point he travelled to Japan in early May, had a lesson with David Leadbetter, took possession of some new equipment and promptly won the Chunichi Crowns event, holing a 25-foot putt to beat the Australian Roger Mackay.
Returning to Europe for the Open de Espana, Seve opened with a course-record 63 at Club de Campo in Madrid only to be caught by the Argentine Eduardo Romero on the final day and lose in a play-off.
“I had joy and sorrow today,” Romero said. “Joy because I won an important tournament. Sorrow because I beat my friend and hero.”
For Seve it was a case of one step forward, two steps back and the doubts returned.
The tour moved to Wentworth and Ballesteros made a bold start, shooting rounds of 67-69-65 to give him a two-shot advantage over his old rival Bernhard Langer.
On the final day, however, his nearest challenger proved to be Colin Montgomerie who closed with a 67 to set the clubhouse lead at 17 under.
Playing the easy 16th hole, with two comfortable par fives to follow, Ballesteros looked in control on 18 under.
But he bogied 16 and then repeated the mistake on the penultimate hole to fall one shot behind the young Scot.
Ballesteros later recalled his thoughts on the final tee. “Seve,” he told himself, “you can’t lose all the time. Something good must happen to you.”
It was probably a bit rich to suggest that nothing good had ever happened to him – certainly a few sceptical Americans might have choked when reading those words – but it demonstrates his fretful frame of mind at the time. Which makes what follows all the more impressive.
He found the edge of the 18th green with two straight shots, chipped to eight feet and holed the birdie putt to force a play-off.
The excited British crowd, which had learned to love Seve as one of their own, raced through the trees to the first fairway, desperate to support their man.
They were on the charge, fuelled with Seve fever and all too aware that there was no experience like it in their sport.
But when Seve launched his drive, those fans watched in horror as it veered horribly left, heading towards the trees and an impossible position.
“Something good must happen to you,” Seve had told himself 20 minutes earlier – and now it did as the ball ricocheted off a golf cart and came to rest in the first cut of the rough.
The position was not ideal: he would need a draw to find the green, but he had a chance and he was prepared to take it, launching an imperious 5-iron that curved round the trees, carried 220 yards and came to rest three feet from the pin.
The crowd were ecstatic and Montgomerie could do no more than par the hole, leaving the stage open for Seve to complete his win and the reflect on his majestic approach to the green.
“Given the situation,” he said, “it was one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.”
Six days later (the PGA Championship concluded on Bank Holiday Monday in those days) Ballesteros added the British Masters title at Woburn and a further four wins would come before the curtain was brought down on his unparalleled career.
“He had everything,” Lee Trevino once said of Seve, “touch, power, know-how, courage and charisma. He had the lot.”
But Seve had even more than that. “The way he looked, the way he moved,” Rodger Davis once said. “It made you feel inferior.”
Some might argue that in wearing plus-fours, baggy jumpers and a drooping moustache Davis was asking to feel inferior to anyone never mind a legend.
But most knew exactly what he meant – Seve was special, a golfing matador, and Wentworth, where adoring crowds roared their approval down tree-lined fairways, was his bullring.
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