Destino. It was the word Seve Ballesteros used to justify why he won and why he lost. And it may also explain, sadly, why he is no longer with us. His belief that his fate was in hands other than his own seems to be increasingly shared in the world of golf. For Ballesteros, destino did not just extend to his performance on the golf course. It explained why his life was destined to be shorter. Three Open Championships, two Masters, a dominant presence in the Ryder Cup and the driving force behind European golf would never have happened if a twist of fate had not intervened.
In December 1983, Seve had been booked on a domestic flight from Madrid to Santander after playing at Sun City, South Africa. But, needing more time to travel, he had changed his flight at the last minute. The domestic flight crashed, killing everyone on board. He was 26 at the time. His life after that date clearly shows that he was saved for a reason. Would European golf have gained the momentum it did without its superstar? But it was almost as though he was given borrowed time to have his wonderful life and then sadly he had to leave us.
Ben Crenshaw, the American Captain, spoke to the press on the Saturday night of the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline when the US team were 10-6 down. He wagged his finger at them. “I have just one last thing to say. I’m a big believer in fate. Just watch what’s going to happen”.
An avid golf historian, Crenshaw was alluding to Brookline’s place in history. For it was at Brookline at the 1913 US Open that American golf truly began. The English legends Harry Vardon and Ted Ray found themselves tied after 72 holes with local amateur and former caddy Francis Oiumet. In the 18 hole play off the following day Ouimet soundly beat the two great professionals in a shocking upset. The resulting newspaper stories captured the imagination of the American public causing an explosion in the number of golfers and golf courses in America. But bizarrely that golf match might never have taken place. The previous year Harry Vardon had been due to make a tour of America but contracted a mystery virus and he withdrew before the ship he was due to travel on set sail. The year was 1912 and he was due on board the Titanic. Was this why he was saved, so that America’s first home grown champion could resoundly beat him and set the stage for a new era in world golf ?
Crenshaw was right. Whether it was fate or whether it was the hand of the late Francis Ouimet, the United States Ryder Cup team pulled off a remarkable and unlikely victory the following day, wearing shirts that bore prints of photographs of their American golfing forefathers. However, this victory was a controversial one from the European perspective for the manner in which some of the players and their supporters behaved. The then US Open champion was the one who acted as peacemaker, an American who silenced the crowds chanting against the Europeans. This gentleman was Payne Stewart. The month after this I was working in a large press office with televisions all around so there was no escape from watching an awful story unfold. The private plane which Payne Stewart was travelling in flew around the United States with all on board unconscious until it finally fell to earth. This terrible tragedy stunned everyone and silenced the raging war of words going on about the Brookline Ryder Cup. Payne completed his life at the height of his achievements when he had made his peace with life and his loss brought everyone to their senses and healed the rifts.
It was to take until 2012 and the passing of the great European talisman, Seve, for an even bigger miracle to happen on American soil at Medinah. For whatever the golfing forefathers had helped with at Brookline, it was even more mysterious at Medinah. Ballesteros had passed away a year earlier. The European team, captained by Seve’s great friend and Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal were also 10-6 down on the Saturday evening, needing eight and a half points to win. In one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history the Europeans won 8 singles and tied one, securing outright victory. Seve’s image was on the arms of the European team’s clothing, and he was in the team’s hearts and minds that week. He once said of his own game that when he was winning, he often felt a mysterious energy show up, a magnetism that helped him. That week at Medinah, the energy seemed to be that of Seve himself, remember Justin Rose pointing to the image of Seve on his arm and wagging his finger to heaven.
Early in Tiger Woods’ career his late father Earl had said that Tiger was “a chosen one”. A black father and an Asian mother made Tiger appeal to a broader ethnic spectrum than any other golfer and drew unprecedented audiences to golf who might never have been interested before. “A divine power put Tiger here for a purpose. (Other people) are individually prepared for the time when their lives intersect with Tiger’s. They will interface with his life when it is time”. Prophetic words from his dad that suggest that the people who come into Tiger’s orbit are part of a pre-ordained plan. So Rachel Uchitel and the other women must have been part of this plan, who showed up when it was time. Because they did indeed bring about the downfall of someone many had thought was invincible on the golf course. What happened with Tiger in late 2009 many thought effectively brought to an end his challenge of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships. And in 2017 it got worse. Brought low by a torrid divorce and debilitating back pain which led to an addiction to prescription medication, Tiger was arrested. At that time it looked as though Tiger’s record would forever be 5 championships short of beating that record because it looked as though he would never play professionally again. . What interests me is how and why this was meant to be, for an athlete who was so magnificent and dominant to fall so far. Only to rise again. For in winning the 2019 Masters after spinal surgery Tiger completed the most remarkable comeback in sports, ever. But his intertwining with fate wasn’t finished there. In February 2021 Tiger’s story took a dramatic twist when his courtesy car overturned and multiple fractures to his legs could set back his recovery another 18 months. Would this be the devastating act of fate which would make Tiger give up orofessional golf for good? Like Ben Hogan before him Tiger is lucky to be alive, so how will he spend his second chance?
Of the new “big three” of Spieth, Day and McIlroy, it is Jason Day’s story which is the most compelling. His film is earlier on in this blog. In his mother Dening talks about how fate played a hand in Jason’s life, leading him from the early adversity of losing his father to becoming a champion golfer. She made financial sacrifices to send him away to a private school after he fell off the rails and he got back on track with the help of his golf coach and mentor Col Swatton. Jason says “It’s amazing the journey that you take in life. If my father was alive I wouldn’t be out here. There’s no chance that I would have been on the PGA Tour, absolutely none, It was an opportunity that came out of a tragedy that happened to me, but it changed my life for the better”.
It is fascinating how destiny plays a hand in changing the guard from one generation of golfers to the next. The dominant players of the 1990s were Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. Norman is a strange case. He could be extremely self destructive on a golf course. A wayward shot to the right which lost him the 1984 US Open, the 1985 Masters and the 1989 Open Championship. The loss of three of the four major championships in 1986 despite leading them all after the third round and a record of losing all four majors in playoffs – under three different formats. This meant that Greg Norman had a tally of just 2 majors when all opportunities considered, it could have been 16. But self-destruction aside, Norman was the recipient of the most outrageous misfortune. And fate is the only explanation for this. Larry Mize’s chip denying him the Masters, Bob Tway’s holed bunker shot beating him to win the PGA, Robert Gamez holing a 7-iron for eagle during the Bay Hill Classic. Four shots that can only be described as freaks of nature and Norman was on the receiving end each time.
Norman’s worst experience on a golf course must have been the 1996 Masters, where Peter Alliss commentated “he is star crossed, and he’s doing his damndest to lose it”. But the duel between Norman and Faldo, the two dominant golfers of their generation marked the end of an era. It was the final fight before the Woods era dawned, Tiger won his first major the following year.
The Masters has strong connections to fate. It has come to light that after his Grand Slam winning year of 1930 Bobby Jones escaped three freak accidents during the building of Augusta National. Each of these could have killed him and he was miraculously saved every time. Does Jones look down and choose the winners? Until Augusta native Larry Mize holed his audacious chip in 1987 I would have thought the idea bizarre, but now I am not so sure. When Ben Crenshaw won his second Masters in 1995, days after his long time teacher Harvey Penick passed away, he reflected on his victory: “It was as though I had a hand on my shoulder showing me the right thing to do”. Was he guided by Penick, haven been chosen to win by Bobby Jones, the founder of the Masters? As one American golf writer remarked “it was a bad week for non believers”.
The one time I have been truly disappointed in fate was at the 2009 Open Championship. On the links of Turnberry, the scene of his greatest championship win against Jack Nicklaus in 1977, Tom Watson stood on the 72nd hole with a putt to win. At 59 years old he would have won a record equalling sixth Open Championship and become the oldest major champion in history. One of the greatest achievements in all of sport, never mind golf, was within his grasp. But the putt did not go in. It should have been! However at 59 years old Watson had tied the Championship after 72 holes of regulation play. It was only after a four hole play off that he was defeated. Strangely he was beaten by Stewart Cink, who until then had quite a reputation of shying away at the finish. Watson’s only consolation was that the magnetism of Turnberry had rewarded him with a Senior Open title there six years previously.
An American friend once offered me an interesting theory why some players have been deprived and suffered misfortunes in golf. He said it was because they had won the World Series of Golf, which used to be played at Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio. “Look at what’s happened to the winners” he argued “and Greg Norman has won it twice”. So what happened to the winners of the World Series of Golf? Legend has it that there were some old Indian burial grounds over which Firestone Country Club was built and a curse was put on the winners of the tournament by their ancestors. Far fetched you might say, until the theory is examined, For many of the winners this was their last tournament win. Others, such as Bill Rogers and Dennis Watson slumped so badly that they never recovered their form. Tom Watson couldn’t putt well for years afterwards. Phil Mickelson leads an exciting life jumping from drama to drama, Jose Maria Olazabal suffered a career threatening injury, Gene Littler battled cancer, Lee Trevino was struck by lightning, Raymond Floyd’s house burnt down and Tony Lema was killed in a plane crash – on a private plane travelling from Akron – Spooky. And they throw away the Masters Par 3 competition on the grounds of superstition!
A simple twist of fate is often what it takes. Missed opportunities or a wrong decision made and rued for years afterwards are perhaps not worth worrying about. If it’s all pre-determined, what’s meant for us is going to happen anyway.
A previous version of my article was published in Golf International magazine.