Gust of greatness blows Seve into lead


SOUTHPORT, England -- If the final round of the British Open were to end Sunday the way the first round ended yesterday, nary a soul would complain.

Severiano Ballesteros, one of golf's giants, stood on the tee of the par-5 17th hole late in the afternoon, trailing by two shots. He eagled the hole with the help of a mammoth, 375-yard, windblown drive, then made a slow, meandering, 40-foot downhill putt on the 18th for a birdie.

As he walked off the course, with the gallery showering him with applause, the Spaniard was alone at the top. And he made his surge at a time of the day when the wind was gusting, the temperature was dropping, and scoring had become extremely difficult, at least for everyone else.

"Everything went great, couldn't be any better," he said minutes later, still bubbling with the thrill of it all. "I think I played great. It was a great round."

His 66, 4-under-par at Royal Birkdale, gave him a one-stroke lead over his countryman, Santiago Luna, who is slightly less well-known; Britain's Martin Gates, who is not exactly a household name either; and American Chip Beck.

Lurking among a group of seven players at 68 is Nick Faldo, the defending champion and pre-tournament favorite. Asked if other contenders might be intimidated by the sight of his name on the leader board, Faldo replied, "I hope so."

But the day belonged to Ballesteros, the leading money-winner on the European tour this year. At the age of 34, he is attempting to become again what he was not so long ago -- the best golfer in the world.

Adding to the drama of it all was that he was paired yesterday with Johnny Miller, with whom he played the final round of the 1976 British Open on this very course.

Ballesteros was 19 years old and a golfing nobody on that memorable Sunday 15 Julys ago. Miller was the king, a man in the midst of one of the hottest streaks in golfing history.

That day, Miller shot a 66 and won. Ballesteros shot a 74 and lost.

"It brought back good memories," Ballesteros said of his round yesterday.

For a while, the tournament was well on its way to becoming a first-round muddle.

Until Ballesteros made his long putt at 18, the three co-leaders included two men who had to play Sunday and Monday in the pre-tourney qualifier just to get to the first tee.

One was Luna, 28, who finished 131st on the European money-winning list last year, and has been winning and losing his tour card with regularity the last six years. He wasn't sure of being here until late Monday evening, when he won his slot on the eighth hole of a sudden-death qualifying playoff.

Luna, who ended yesterday's round bogey-birdie-eagle-bogey, was pleased with his good fortune, to put it mildly. Asked what his greatest accomplishment in golf was before yesterday, he could not think of one. Asked if he were nervous to be where he was, he replied, "No, I'm dreaming."

Another who had to qualify to get into his first Open was Gates, 26, who ranks 66th on the European tour.

He said his goal this year is "to make enough money to stay on the tour next year."

Beck, 34, was a slightly more reasonable candidate for a position on the leader board, although his record in this tournament over the years has been undistinguished. He has won nearly $300,000 on the U.S. tour this season.

For much of the day, matters unfolded in a quite unexpected manner.

According to pre-tournament prognostications, the wind speed yesterday was supposed to be in the mid-40s, the golf scores in the mid-70s, the Americans lucky to wind up in the top 100.

None of the three proved to be, though the winds did kick up in the afternoon.

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