Danny Willett should be getting ready to play in the Masters today. Rightly so, the Englishman has a life exemption thanks to his 2016 victory.
Willett might not have had the chance to win that Masters if not for Severiano Ballesteros.
Ballesteros, who died on the 7th May 2011, would have been 63 today. He, too, should have been preparing to play in the Masters, 40 years after making history by becoming the first European to win golf’s most garish, most coveted green jacket. While that was a huge personal milestone for Seve, the realisation of a dream nurtured on Pedreña beach near his home in Northern Spain, it was massive for the European Tour.
Seve’s 1980 victory helped push the door ajar for the likes of Willett to follow. Only the crème de la crème of European golf played in the Masters in Seve’s day.
There was no official world golf ranking in 1980 when Seve won. He was just one of four Europeans who played in the 1980 Masters. Willett is one of 23 Europeans to have qualified for this year’s event, which is now supposed to be played in November.
Mark James won 18 European Tour tournaments and appeared on seven Ryder Cup teams. He was one of those four lucky Europeans in 1980, but missed the cut. Howard Clark won 11 European tournaments and played in six Ryder Cups. He played just one Masters, a 35th place tie in 1987. Four-time European Tour winner turned commentator Ken Brown is another who played in just one Masters. The five-time Ryder Cupper finished 36th in 1988. Brown had to go to America to get into the Masters. He qualified for the 1988 tournament by winning the 1987 Southern Open on the PGA Tour.
“It was hard to get into the American majors in those days,” Brown once told me. “They were a closed shop for only our top guys. It’s not like today where so many international players get into the field. In my day, it was mostly Americans with only a handful of international stars. I would have loved to have played in more Masters, but it just wasn’t possible.”
“I think Seve showed those in charge of the American majors that there was a lot of talent outside of America. He pushed the door ajar for others to follow.”
Not just Europeans. I remember going to the 1993 Masters and listening to then Augusta chairman Hord Hardin answer a question from a South African journalist about why Ernie Els wasn’t in the field. Els had completed South African slam in 1992 of winning the South African Open, South African PGA and South African Masters. Yet he wasn’t invited to play in the 1993 Masters. Hardin said the club was happy with its method of selecting the field, but I don't he had a clue who Ernie Els was. Els made his Masters debut in 1994.
Former European Tour chief executive Ken Schofield deserves a lot of credit for campaigning hard to get European Tour members into the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship. His job was made all the easier thanks to Seve’s 1980 Masters victory. It pioneered the way for other Europeans like Willett to follow.
Nowadays players like Willett, Bernd Wiesberger, Victor Perez, Matt Wallace and others rightly take their place at Augusta National.
Today’s equivalent of James, Clark and Brown should say a huge thank you to Seve Ballesteros, who also won the 1983 Masters. He is to European golf as Arnold Palmer is to American golf. Just as Palmer’s trip to the 1960 Open Championship was key in persuading future Americans to play in the Open, Seve’s 1980 Masters win helped Augusta open the gates to Magnolia Drive to Europeans.
Happy birthday Seve. R.I.P.
My book, Seve: A Biography of Severiano Ballesteros, can be purchased on Amazon.