Wednesday, 15 October 2014

1981: Suntory World Matchplay

1981 had been a challenging year for Seve Ballesteros. Throughout the season, the Spaniard had been embroiled in a row with the European Tournament Players' Division (ETPD) over appearance money on the European Tour, so much so that Ballesteros left the Tour and refused to play events in Britain that didn't pay him the money he felt he was rightfully entitled to.

To many, Ballesteros was seen as a greedy, a man too big for his boots, someone who needed a return to reality. But others saw the debate from Seve's perspective. After all, he was Europe's finest player, a winner of two majors, and why was it acceptable to pay a non-European Tour member an appearance fee (such as Lee Trevino or Arnold Palmer), but not Europe's star attraction?

The row rumbled on during 1981, yet the saddest element of the story was the impact it would have on Europe's Ryder Cup team. Having played in so few events, Ballesteros was not one of the top ten players on the Ryder Cup points table, and would now be reliant on a pick from the committee of John Jacobs (captain) and fellow selectors Neil Coles and Bernhard Langer.

It was believed that Jacobs wanted Ballesteros in the team, but also rumoured that Coles, in his role as chairman of the ETPD, was dead against the inclusion of Europe's rebel. Unsurprisingly at the time, Ballesteros missed out on selection, although the fact that Mark James - a man fined £1500 for his behaviour at the 1979 Ryder Cup - was preferred (along with Peter Oosterhuis) raised a few eyebrows.

Although Ballesteros publicly accepted the decision of the committee, in private he was aggrieved at the rejection, and it would take some expert negotiation on the part of Tony Jacklin to get Europe's star man back on board for the 1983 Ryder Cup. In time Seve would become Europe's heartbeat, the catalyst for the team as the Ryder Cup developed into the great occasion that we now take for granted. But back in 1981 the main reason given for his exclusion was the divisive impact he would have on the team due to his controversial stance regarding appearance money. Hard to believe given Ballesteros' subsequent influence on the event.

Suspicions were also raised about Ballesteros' apparent weakness in matchplay golf. Two semi-finals in the World Matchplay at Wentworth suggested that his critics may have been a little harsh, although an unsuccessful Ryder Cup debut in 1979 - just one win in five matches - meant that Ballesteros had a lot to prove as the draw for the 1981 Suntory World Matchplay took place. Unseeded for the tournament, Ballesteros would need to come through a tough opener against American Hale Irwin, just to earn the right to take on defending champion Greg Norman.

The history between Ballesteros and Irwin added a bit of spice to their first round encounter. In 1976 Irwin got the better of Ballesteros at Wentworth, although the pair had clashed during the match, Irwin unhappy about Ballesteros repairing spike marks on the green throughout, even though the Spaniard was acting strictly within the rules at the time.

The ill-feeling grew when Ballesteros won the 1979 Open at Lytham. After Seve's memorable recovery from a temporary car park on the 16th during the final round, some unkindly referred to him as the "parking-lot champion", Ballesteros believing that it was Irwin who first coined the phrase (a fact that Irwin denied). To top it all, Irwin then heavily criticised Ballesteros after the Spaniard turned up late for his tee time at the 1980 US Open and was disqualified.

Prior to the World Matchplay, Ballesteros had ended his British exile, finishing second in the European Open and third in the Tournament Players' Championship. Winning the Spanish Open a week before Wentworth, Ballesteros was understandably confident as he arrived in Surrey, stating that if he continued to putt well then he could win the title. Unusually it would be his accurate driving that would swing the first round match against Irwin in his favour though, as Ballesteros missed only one fairway all day with his driver.

At lunch he held a four hole lead over Irwin, firing a four under par total for the first round and at no point did Irwin look like making a comeback, as the afternoon developed into a similar pattern. Ballesteros eventually won 6 and 4, finishing eight under par for the 32 holes played and winning a match that gave him a great deal of satisfaction. Afterwards Ballesteros said that he had played "quite well, not very well", which served as a chilling warning to the rest of the field.

It was turning into an embarrassing day for the Ryder Cup selectors. Brian Barnes, who many felt was also unlucky to have been left out of Europe's team, defeated Ray Floyd 3 and 2, and when team member Nick Faldo lost 5 and 3 to Ben Crenshaw, many questions were raised again about the absence of Ballesteros and Barnes at Walton Heath ("Barnes and Ballesteros cock a snook at Ryder Cup selectors", in the words of The Times). However, Bernhard Langer was still involved as one of the seeded players, and would take on Barnes in the quarter finals. The remaining matches saw Ballesteros against Norman, Gary Player, who rolled back the years to beat Isao Aoki 5 and 4, meeting Open champion Bill Rogers, and Crenshaw against US Open winner David Graham.

In truth Norman did not perform to his full capabilities, as Ballesteros' five under par total in challenging conditions saw the Spaniard easily triumph 8 and 6. After Ballesteros had won four of the first six holes, and Norman replied with four of the next five, it appeared as if the quarter final would be nip and tuck. But from the 13th onwards, Norman lost his way, allowing Ballesteros to put his feet up whilst others struggled manfully in their matches.

The win set up a mouthwatering semi-final with Bernhard Langer, who eventually shook off Barnes on the 39th hole. The impending clash between the two European heavyweights was eagerly anticipated in the press, perceived as a battle between the old and new guard of golf on the continent, the two-time major winner v the 1981 Order of Merit leader. Relatively speaking, the other semi-final - Rogers v Crenshaw - was very much the undercard.

Ballesteros certainly did not disappoint the press with regards to his thoughts about the match. "He's the new superstar, the new No. 1 golfer in Europe. Isn't he?" Ballesteros said, with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. "It would be great to finish the year in Europe by beating Bernhard, and that's what I intend to do".

As is often the case, sadly the match failed to live up to its billing. Langer took an early two hole lead, but by the tenth Ballesteros edged ahead for the first time and never looked back. Three holes in a row from 14 to 16 stretched the advantage to four holes, with Langer having to birdie the last two holes just for halves. Ballesteros' six under par total for the first round gave an accurate indication of just how well he was playing.

"This morning I played great golf and in the afternoon I just tried to keep making pars," declared a pragmatic Ballesteros, after he had wrapped up a comfortable 5 and 4 win during a drizzly afternoon round. He may have had a little luck along the way - hitting a woman spectator with an approach shot that then ended five feet from the pin on the 16th in the morning round, for example - but there could be no denying that Ballesteros fully deserved his win. It didn't necessarily mean that Ballesteros was still the King of European golf, but his victory definitely proved a point.

Again Seve could put his feet up whilst his next opponent slugged it out until the very end. Crenshaw's victory on the 36th hole against Rogers was a nerve wracking affair, as he tried his best to throw the match away. Crenshaw had been three up with nine to play, but Rogers squared the match on the 17th, Gentle Ben's usually sure putting stroke letting him down as he three-putted from just five yards. Crenshaw was able to limp over the line though, a superb bunker shot on the last proving the difference.

"Seve sure has some arsenal," Crenshaw admitted before their meeting. "He's got length, he's got a good short game, but I'm playing well". Crenshaw was at the time trying valiantly to shake off his tag of a golfing bridesmaid, having finished a runner-up in four majors during his career, and losing a play-off against Rogers for the Texan Open a week before Wentworth. His steady nature made him a dangerous opponent for Ballesteros, and the final would prove to be the sternest test of Seve's matchplay abilities.

After 16 holes Crenshaw held a three hole lead, but the two par fives of 17 and 18 gave the longer hitting Ballesteros an advantage over his American opponent, and a birdie at the first of these holes cut the advantage to two. Crenshaw would match Ballesteros' birdie at 18, however, and for the first time all week, Seve would go to lunch behind and with a challenge on his hands.

After just six holes in the afternoon the match was all square, and as the final nine holes approached the drama increased, with both players taking it in turns to forge ahead in a final of constant ebb and flow. Ballesteros took the lead for the first time in the match, winning the 28th, but just two holes later Crenshaw was back in front after winning holes 29 and 30. Even though he lost the par five 12th (30th), Ballesteros had demonstrated his penchant for the recovery shot, hitting a one-handed shot backwards from bushes, and still managing to par the hole. An onlooking Crenshaw looked on in shock and awe.

With just four holes remaining Ballesteros trailed by one hole, but in keeping with the back and forth nature of the final, two birdies - the first after a seven-iron to three feet, and the second due to a putt from 20 feet - nudged Ballesteros in front, with his strong holes of 17 and 18 to come. Seve often did things the hard way though, and when he three putted 17, the match was all square going down the last.

Ballesteros' driver, three-iron and two putt gave him a routine birdie at the final hole, but it would be a poor second from Crenshaw that ultimately decided the final. The American played a decent pitch, but when he missed his putt from eight feet Ballesteros was hugged and lifted off the ground by his brother and caddie Baldomero, the pair celebrating Seve's first World Matchplay title and a £30,000 payday.

"This is the third most important win of my life," a beaming Ballesteros informed the gathered media, his win, rather appropriately, being the first European name to be engraved on to the trophy. A stunning performance over four days proved once and for all that the man could play matchplay, that his omission from the Ryder Cup team was looking more and more ridiculous as time progressed, and that he was still Europe's major force. Only once did he play past 32 holes in a match, as he rattled in 38 birdies in 138 holes of golf that saw him finish at an estimated 25 under par. And along the way he beat two American Ryder Cup players, the defending champion, and Europe's Order of Merit winner.

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Ballesteros returned to Wentworth and successfully defended his title, and continued his domination with wins in 1984 and 1985 too (his last triumph in 1991 equalled Gary Player's record of five wins, although both have subsequently been overtaken by Ernie Els' seven titles). From a man who had not grown up on a diet of matchplay, Ballesteros was soon to discover that he was tailor made for the format, his win in 1981 beginning a happy marriage with the World Matchplay, and maybe even laying the building blocks for his heroics that followed in the Ryder Cup. Perhaps it wasn't such a bad 1981 after all then.

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