Ben Wright: Southern-fried Seve

In all my years of covering tournament golf, I never heard galleries react with quite the same passion as those at the Masters. From my perch behind the 15th green it was possible to distinguish the various cheers as they echoed through the avenues of pines. For instance, whenever a player got home in two at the par-5 second hole, the response was typically polite applause escalating into a deafening crescendo if the ball rolled anywhere near the cup.

Likewise, to my right it was always possible to discern between an eagle roar and a mere birdie at the par-5 13th hole. Often one could determine a score even before it was posted, particularly during the final round. And there was nothing in all my experience like the hurrahs that greeted Jack Nicklaus’ back-nine heroics on a fateful Sunday afternoon in 1986, when he won his sixth green jacket at the age of 46. Quite simply, the galleries that day were the most deafening I ever heard at Augusta National.

Lucky me, I had the privilege of describing Jack’s eagle at the par-5 15th and his near hole-in-one at 16, where his 5-iron shot landed a few inches past the cup and backed up three feet below it. If the roar had been deafening for the eagle—and it was—it was even louder for the birdie 2. In my headset, I couldn’t even hear the commands of my gravel-voiced producer-director, Frank Chirkinian, so I decided I might as well hog the microphone and continue to speak.

Nicklaus, you might recall, was not the only fiery competitor at Augusta that day. I had been watching Seve Ballesteros out of the corner of my eye, waiting, waiting, waiting in the 15th fairway after a tremendous drive. Tommy Nakajima was also waiting, delaying his putt at No. 15 while Nicklaus sized up his birdie putt on 16. So for Seve, the drive at 15 was the only shot he managed to hit while Jack was making up three strokes—all accompanied by those unmistakable roars—to reach 8-under-par, one shot behind the Spaniard.

It was obvious to me that Seve was unraveling, and just before he made a hurried and horrid stroke with his 4-iron, I predicted the ball was “destined for the water.” When a splash told the sad story, I said Seve had hurried the shot because he wanted to get it played before Nicklaus’ gallery erupted again, as it was certain to do at the 17th. (The tragedy of the occasion that I chose to let pass was that the “patrons” greeted Seve’s gaffe with quite noticeable applause.)

Ballesteros was very upset with my call, denying vehemently that he had hit a bad shot or been overcome by the pressure. In the clubhouse afterward, we had a heated exchange in which I begged to differ, but Seve stalked away in a huff. The next morning I returned to the clubhouse to pick up a few souvenirs. I encountered the Spaniard there again—and again he denied having yielded to the pressure, saying he had hit an easy 4-iron instead of a hard 5.

For some years after that, my relationship with Seve was strained, to say the least. But one fine day, as I was minding my own business with friends over dinner at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, I received a tap on the shoulder. I spun around to see Seve standing there, and prepared myself for another tongue-lashing. Instead, to my amazement, Seve grinned and said simply, “It was a truly terrible shot.” He offered me a warm handshake, which I gladly accepted, and I’m pleased to report we’ve enjoyed a friendly relationship ever since.