Augusta National is a sporting stage unlike any other.
It is a place where tradition is valued above all else and the sacred Green Jacket, handed to the Masters winner each year, gives the golf major a familiarity that is unique in sport.
But some of that familiarity will be broken this year, especially as the coronavirus pandemic precipitated a re-schedule from the tournament’s usual April spot in the sporting calendar to November for the first time in its 86-year history.
It’s fitting perhaps that this Augusta first comes on the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest moments in Masters history when Seve Ballesteros became the first European to claim the most coveted prize in golf.
Having turned professional in 1974, aged 16, Ballesteros’ talent had been evident to European circles for a number of years, even before he announce himself on the world stage by claiming his first major title in 1979, winning The Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
“We in America got our first glimpse of Seve in 1976 when he finished runner-up in The Open at Birkdale,” Ben Crenshaw, one of the pre-tournament favourites to claim the Green Jacket at Augusta in 1980, tells CNN Living Golf host, Shane O’Donoghue.
“We could see this player, this handsome dashing player, who played with such verve and power … it was like Arnold Palmer reincarnated on the coast of Spain.”
The confidence gleaned from his first Open Championship win, combined with his natural ability, meant Ballesteros was riding high ahead of the 1980 Masters.
Just three weeks before, he had finished third at the PGA Tour’s Players’ Championship, a couple of strokes behind winner Lee Trevino.
On the eve of the tournament, and celebrating his 23rd birthday, asked how he was feeling, he told the media: “I’m ready to go.”
A strong start
Ballesteros quikcly showed the Augusta patrons he meant business, putting together a near-faultless first round that left him tied for first place at six-under par.
“At that point, he hadn’t really played in the United States that much. So, what sort of surprised people was that he was able to just swashbuckle his way around in the way that he did,” Crenshaw explained.
“Augusta was the most beautiful palette upon which he could paint these pictures in his mind. It was made for Seve.”
Ballesteros followed up his opening day 66 with rounds of 69 and 68 on Friday and Saturday respectively, taking an incredible seven-stroke lead into the final day.
Despite being one of the youngest competing, the 23-year-old was on course to break the course’s 72-hole record.
The final day
On the final day, Ballesteros sauntered through the front nine and extended his lead.
“There’s a cliché which goes that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday and, in 1980, come the back nine on Sunday, it looked like it was all over. Seve led by 10 shots,” Ballesteros’ biographer Robert Green told Living Golf.
“I’m sure he knew he’d got it won, everybody knew he’d got it won, there’s no drama – then, four holes later, he leads by just three. He’d dropped four shots in four holes and Jack Newton had made three birdies in three holes and, suddenly, what had seemed like an unassailable lead had all but drifted away.”
With his lead wilting around the iconic Amen corner, Ballesteros required all the determination and desire he could muster. “Jack Newton was a wonderful player from Australia and Seve and Jack had this great battle,” Crenshaw said.
According to Green, when a player loses control at Augusta a round can “get away from you very fast,” which is what was threatening to happen to Ballesteros.
“It just shows me that Augusta, more than anywhere else, how particularly those water-strewn holes on the back nine, that it can get away from you very fast, if things go wrong,” Green explains.
Few knew Ballesteros better than Billy Foster, his caddy from 1991 to 1995.
“I’ve caddied for nearly 30 years, there’s no other golfer that I’ve ever met to this day that showed the determination, the grit, the desire – I’ve seen him biting grips in tears,” the Englishman told CNN in 2016.
“He just loved the game and it meant everything to him, it was his life.”
After his nightmare run of bogeys through Amen Corner – a term coined by sports writer Herbert Warren Wind in 1958 for the 11th, 12th and the tee shot on the 13th hole – Ballesteros astonishingly birdied the 15th and got home safely, winning by four strokes at 13-under par.
In one of the most remarkable Sunday’s in Masters history, Augusta had crowned one of the most remarkable champions in its history.
Speaking to CNN five years before his death in 2011, Ballesteros outlined the characteristics he needed to become a Masters champion.
“To be a winner, it takes a lot of things – it takes talent obviously, it takes time to develop that talent, discipline, determination, desire … and good nerves.”
Ballesteros’ dramatic victory opened the door for a host of other European golfers to succeed on the biggest of stages.
“I really believe that without Seve, it would have taken maybe 20 or 30 years more for the European game to be where we are today,” Ballesteros’ friend, Jose Maria Olazabal, who would himself won two Green Jackets, told Living Golf as he reflected on the 40th anniversary.
Despite his magnificent triumph in 1980, however, Ballesteros was not yet well known in his homeland.
“I think what would have hurt him the most was that there would be essentially no acknowledgment of his achievement in Spain because, generally, people in Spain weren’t interested in golf,” Green explained.
With a pained expression, Olazabal said: “I remember, I was told by him that when he won the Open Championship [in 1979] for instance, the TV cut the images when he was in contention to win the event with four or five holes to go so that they could show a horse race.”
As his career progressed, the Spanish public not only warmed to Ballesteros but also to the sport of golf, thanks mainly to Ballesteros’ magnetic personality and success.
The adoration was evident during the euphoric scenes at Valderama in 1997 as Ballesteros captained the European team to a dramatic Ryder Cup victory on his home soil over the Americans.
There is perhaps no greater example of Ballesteros’ legacy in Spain than current world No. 2 Jon Rahm, one of the favorites to claim the Green Jacket this year.
“Because of that 1997 Ryder Cup, and that Seve spirit, that aura, that something that Seve had, my family started playing golf and I’m here because of it,” Rahm said.
“He was a pioneer of golf, not only in Spain but Europe, and when I tell people they don’t usually believe me. When he started playing golf, I think there was about 15,000 people that were licensed to play golf in Spain, when he died there was 350,000 people.”
It’s been a spectacular year for Rahm, as he became the only Spaniard, other than Ballesteros, to reach the world No. 1 spot. If he wins the Green Jacket, he’ll be the third Spaniard to follow in Ballesteros’ footsteps – after Olazabal and Sergio Garcia.
“It’s crazy to think of his story, right? I mean, [he] started as a caddy with one club and made it all the way to the pros, goes to Augusta and is the first European to win the Masters. It’s unbelievable.”