Royal Birkdale in 1976 was the place that Seve Ballesteros introduced himself to the golfing world aged 19 by taking a share of the 18-hole lead with an opening 69. He would go on to finish runner-up alongside Jack Nicklaus, six shots behind American Johnny Miller having played the sort of swashbuckling golf that would make him one of the game’s legends.
Which is why there is such a spring in the steps of his Spanish successors in the professional game this week. Sergio Garcia arrived in Southport this week as the reigning Masters champion having won his first major on the day the late Ballesteros would have turned 60 last April. Jon Rahm is here a fortnight after landing his maiden European Tour victory at the Irish Open and he was followed into the winner’s circle a week later by another Spaniard, Rafa Cabrera Bello, who made it a second links win in as many weeks at the Scottish Open.
The trio is currently placed second, third and fourth behind Southport native Tommy Fleetwood in the European Tour’s Race To Dubai rankings and each one of them has a real opportunity to add the Claret Jug to their resumé.
At 22, Rahm is the youngest of the Spaniards and the parallels between Seve’s 1976 appearance here and his own are uncanny. Back in 76, Ballesteros was making his second Open start having made an inauspicious debut at Carnoustie 12 months earlier, missing the cut with rounds of 79 and 80. Rahm comes in this week having debuted at Royal Troon a year ago and finishing tied for 59th having failed to break 70 but he is primed for a good week after his romp to a six-shot victory at Portstewart.
He has won on both sides of the Atlantic this year already, taking the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with a final-round 65 in January and has risen to number seven in the world rankings.
That rapid rise has inevitably drawn comparisons with Ballesteros but while he is flattered he is understandably keen to play down the assumption he is the new Seve.
“I wasn’t fortunate to be able to watch Seve much,” Rahm said yesterday. “My family didn’t get into golf pretty much up to the last decade and by then, you know, he was already on the downslope of his career. He had some physical problems.
“I wish we would have, though. I’ve seen every video on YouTube that you can of Seve. I’ve seen his video here in ‘76, his one winning (The Open at Lytham) in ‘79 about a million times, how he plays the back nine without hitting the fairway, and makes four-under par, it’s absolutely unbelievable.
“To whoever compares me to him, I’m never going to be Seve. Seve was so unique, so special, to be honest, if we ever see someone like him again it is going to be someone very, very special.
“Because what he did was special for Spanish golf and for the Spanish community it was so special. He opened so many doors. And he is somewhat the reason why I play golf, because of that Ryder Cup in 1997 (at Valderrama).
“I’m pretty sure he had some influence in getting the Ryder Cup there, and being the captain and how he brought the game of golf to Spain and the Spanish community, and directly because of that my dad and some friends tried golf and that’s how I started playing.
“So if, for my own career, I can make just one kid who’s future was not related to golf, play golf, I’ll be extremely happy. And I’m probably one of thousands. So when I’m compared to him it’s really beautiful to hear those words.
“To be honest, if I’m somewhat compared to him, to see the hopes people have in me, it’s amazing. I try to take it as a positive and embrace it.
“He’s a great idol of mine and I try to emulate a lot of things he used to, and a lot of that is the inspirational power he had, the way he brought masses together and people together. If I could do a quarter of whatever he did, I’d probably be satisfied with my career.”