The first round saw the usual surprise leader this time once again in Bill Longmuir with a bright 65. In the second round Tom Watson made a move with a strong 68 but there was an early glimpse of the genius of Ballesteros. Playing with Lee Trevino and Ken Brown, the young Spaniard took the infamous finishing five holes to pieces. Of those holes, the easiest is the 16th, so that was the only hole at which he had a par. At the other four he had birdies. On the last hole he had a nasty hanging lie for his second shot and played a remarkable knock-down shot that ran up to a yard from the hole. His 65 left him at four under par on 136, two behind Hale Irwin, who despite a pulled drive at the last got his par for his second 68.
A recently discovered old film of the championship allows the sequence of events over the last two rounds to be traced. Whilst a convoluted story, it warrants telling to reveal the ebb and flow over two compelling days. In the third round Watson drove out of bounds at the second and was never again really in contention, but Nicklaus made an ominous move with birdies at the second and third to move to -2. Ballesteros, playing with Irwin, took a one iron from the second tee. Although his ball was not out of bounds, it was totally unplayable in a bush and he made the long and lonely walk back to the tee. With his fourth shot, he was in the front left bunker and although he came out to a foot, a six brought him back to level with Nicklaus at -2, leaving US Open champion Irwin four shots clear of the field. After dropping a shot at the fifth, Nicklaus had a lucky break at the sixth when his 6 iron second shot that was heading for a bunker bounced instead onto the green. His fifteen foot eagle putt ended an inch short but now back to -2 he was one in second place one ahead of Ballesteros who had dropped a shot.
The weather deteriorated and three consecutive bogeys from the 11th did Nicklaus no good at all. While Watson recovered to level par, two birdies took Ballesteros to -3. Irwin dropped shots at the 10th and 11th and now only had a one shot lead. At the fourteenth Ballesteros drove right of the now-removed humps then pulled his 6 iron second nearly onto the fifteenth tee. Chipping too strongly he had to settle for a five and dropped another shot at the fifteenth to be -1. At the same hole Irwin holed a brave putt from fifteen feet to be two ahead at -3. Crenshaw lost touch with a 72 for +2 but Nicklaus after his 73 was still a threat at +1.
At the seventeenth Ballesteros once again missed the green and dropped a shot, but Irwin was bunkered well short on the left and failing to reach the green from there chipped weakly and emerged with a 6. At the 18th Irwin sprayed his tee shot well to the right and from a poor lie put his second through the green. His chip was ten feet short and missing the putt he settled for a five. He came back in 40 shots for his 75 but was still two ahead of Ballesteros who also had a 75 for level par
On the last day a testing breeze meant the course presented a good challenge. Ten years after winning the Open here, Tony Jacklin finished with a birdie at the last but his total was +12. Isao Aoki made an early move with two birdies to take him to +2 but a bogey and double bogey took Watson to +7 and his chance had gone. Ballesteros and Irwin once again were paired together and the dislike the American had for his rival was barely concealed when Ballesteros got a birdie two at the first to move within a shot. A few weeks earlier Irwin had started the last round three shots clear of the field but had wobbled significantly before eventually winning. A birdie at the third brought Crenshaw back into contention at +1 but three consecutive bogeys did for Aoki.
At the second Irwin hit his second shot fat some twenty yards short. From there he jabbed his chip through the green. Worse was to follow when his first putt was four feet short and his twitchy next putt never touched the hole. His six took him to level par one behind Ballesteros who now had the lead for the first time. From nowhere Australian Roger Davis had crept to level par after six holes and when he had his third consecutive birdie on the seventh he shared the lead with Ballesteros. Jostling for position Crenshaw drew level with Irwin in second place.
When like Irwin, Ballesteros dropped a shot at the fourth and could only manage a par five at the sixth, Davis briefly held the lead by himself. A birdie at the seventh took the Spaniard to -1 and when Crenshaw also got to -1 there was a three-way lead. Irwin began to drop away when he dropped a shot at the eleventh and the prospects of Davis winning evaporated when he missed from eight feet at the fourteenth for an unnecessary six.
Peter McEvoy finished as the leading amateur for the second year to win another Silver Medal. At the twelfth Ballesteros was so far right that he was outside the two bunkers and after pitching to nine feet holed an important putt. He and Crenshaw were now tied for the lead at level par. At the next hole Ballesteros saw his drive pitch into the bunker of the right of the fairway, sixty yards short of the green. His second shot although good ended up off the right edge of the green from where he holed out for an unlikely birdie and the outright lead at -1. Irwin was now three behind. Crenshaw had a catastrophic six at the seventeenth after a badly pulled second shot. From a heavy lie he pitched into a green side bunker then missed from seven feet. Dropping a shot at the fourteenth still left Ballesteros two ahead.
Pulling his tee shot at the next hole, he played what can only be described as a flail which managed to carry the cross bunkers and end thirty yards short of the green just off the left edge of the fairway. From there an exquisite pitch ended a foot from the hole. Nicklaus had a birdie at the sixteenth to lie for second on +2 but when his birdie putt at the seventeenth lipped out, his challenge was all too late. At the last, Crenshaw pulled his second left of the green and although he salvaged his par with a pitch to six feet he ended tied with Nicklaus on +2 as the latter headed to the last tee.
What happened to Ballesteros at the 16th is recalled by everyone. Spurning caution, he took his driver from the tee. On the commentary of the time, Henry Longhurst estimates the tee shot to be seventy yards off line. Audible on the film is the referee explaining that not only is relief to be given for an immovable obstruction but also under the rules of the event for line of sight. After the drop, Longhurst commenting on the good fortune with the lie, says 'The Gods are smiling' and then, after Ballesteros pitches to twenty feet then holes out for an outrageous birdie, concludes that 'The Gods are well and truly smiling.' And so they were.
From the eighteenth fairway Nicklaus hits a fat second shot that ends short of the green and with that ended whatever faint chance he had, though he ran his next shot to five feet and holed the putt for a 72 level in second place with Crensahw at +2 for 286. Mark James holed a big putt on the home green to take fourth place on 287 .
It is now down to Ballesteros to lose the Open and he has no intention of doing so. Although in a right hand green side bunker at the 17th, he holes his ten foot putt to save his par. In the Championship he has been in fifteen green side bunkers and on fourteen occasions has got up-and-down in two. This was in the days before revetting! Eager to avoid trouble on the right at the last he pulls his tee-shot nearly onto the second fairway and hits his second to just short of the green. Irwin emerges through the scrambling crowd waving a white handkerchief in surrender as he hole sour from fifteen feet to complete a dismal round of 78 for 289.
Ballesteros puts up close to the hole and taps in for a closing 70 and the only sub par total at -1 from 283. Mobbed by his brothers he has to be separated by R&A secretary Keith McKenzie and reminded he needs to sign his card. Henry Longhurst notes that 'once again no American professional has been able to master the charms or terrors of Royal Lytham. Of Ballesteros he says 'Aged only 22, if his injured back holds up I wonder what he will achieve.' The eventual answer was 'Much.'