We should have been analysing the drama of the 2020 Masters but that will have to wait until November as this year’s tournament has been postponed until later in the year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, it gives me the chance to recall two great characters; Severiano Ballesteros, the winner 40 years ago, and the flamboyant Doug Sanders, whose death was announced on Monday. He was 86.
One was a multiple major champion while the other famously failed to land one of the big four titles that define professional careers. Both men, though, will always be remembered by anyone who cares for the game of golf.
Ballesteros’ Augusta victory on April 13 1980 proved a watershed moment for Europe. Until then, only South African Gary Player – on three occasions – had broken America’s stranglehold on the Masters.
But here came a storming Seve, the reigning Open champion, a flamboyant Spanish matador in the midst of becoming golf’s lead character of the era.
“As soon as I got there and took a look at the golf course, I had the feeling that I was going to win the Masters,” Ballesteros later recalled. “I said to myself, ‘hey, this is your tournament.'”
His confidence was well founded. The then 23-year-old completed a wire to wire victory, that should have been one of the most straightforward wins ever accomplished at Augusta National.
But this was Seve and uncomplicated serenity was never his style. He opened with a brilliant 66 and shared a two stroke lead with Australia’s David Graham and rookie Jeff Mitchell of the United States.
‘An hour after going 10 strokes ahead, Seve’s advantage was down to three’
By the end of the second round, where Ballesteros scored a 3-under-par 69, he was out on his own – five strokes clear of Graham and Rex Caldwell. A day later the lead was seven after a 68 took him 13-under-par.
Augusta was, indeed, made for the big-hitting Spaniard. There was room for occasionally wide hitting and the slick undulating greens provided scope for his extraordinary wedge wizardry to separate himself from the rest of the field.
The course is also golf’s most dramatic stage, which suited to a tee Ballesteros’ sense of occasion and unquenchable desire for glory.
Seve was romping towards the Masters title. There was a $50,000 bonus put up by a golf magazine for anyone who could beat the then record score of 17-under-par and with nine holes to play the 1980 leader was close.
Ballesteros was at 16-under on the 10th tee and 10 strokes clear of the field. “I played the last round not thinking I was [starting] seven shots ahead,” he explained.
“I was concentrating on my own scoring. I was not worried about anyone else because the whole tournament would depend on me.”
And we know that no Masters is complete until the back nine on Sunday has been negotiated. “I was comfortable – 10 shots is a lot,” Ballesteros said. “Then I was uncomfortable, I’m in trouble.”
It began on the short 12th when he found water off the tee. Then came the par-5 13th and another drowning in Rae’s Creek. An hour after going 10 strokes ahead, Seve’s advantage was down to three.
“It did cross my mind that there was a big possibility to lose the Masters,” Ballesteros admitted. “So I said; ‘Seve you have to wake up and be tough from now on.'”
The next par-5 was crucial. That 15th hole with the carry over the water must have been so intimidating given earlier misfortunes on what was now the most tortuous of back-nines.
“If I hit the second shot in the water, I lose the tournament,” Ballesteros said. “I hit it on the green 15 feet away and two putts and thanks to that I won.”
Seventeen years after Jack Nicklaus became the youngest winner, Ballesteros snatched the record with a four shot win over Jack Newton and Gibby Gilbert.
Ballesteros won again in 1983, Germany’s Bernhard Langer collected the first of his two titles in 85, Sandy Lyle was Britain’s first winner in 88, succeeded by three times champion Sir Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.
Seve’s compatriot and Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal won the first of his two Masters in 1994 but only after reading a note left in his locker prior to the final round.
“Be patient today,” Ballesteros had written. “Remember, you are the best player. Wait for the others to make their mistakes and you will win.”
These were prophetic words from a figure whose spirit has run through European golf ever since he landed the continent’s first green jacket.
We knew he would be a huge star from the moment in 1976 he so imaginatively chipped between the bunkers to finish second to Johnny Miller at The Open at Royal Birkdale.
That was one of those occasions where you do not only remember the winner. The same applied in 1970 when Doug Sanders had a tiny putt at the last to grab the winner’s Claret Jug at St Andrews.
He missed and a day later lost an 18 hole playoff to Nicklaus, but this larger than life character from Cedartown in Georgia, was never forgotten.
Known as the “Peacock of the Fairways” for his vibrant dress sense, Sanders was like Ballesteros in the way that he endeared himself to fans wherever he played.
“I never got so many letters and wires than after the British Open,” he later recalled. “They came from people who said they felt so bad to see me miss winning. Many of them weren’t even signed, just ending with ‘A Fan’.”
Sanders won 20 PGA Tour titles and was four times a runner-up in majors, none more agonisingly than when he three-putted that closing green at the Home of Golf nearly 50 years ago.
Golf fans lost Ballesteros far too early when he died from a brain tumour at the age of 54 in 2011. Now they mourn Sanders, who was another of those great personalities who significantly drove the popularity of the sport.