Revisiting the characters and events that made for one of golf’s most intriguing years
Words by Travis Hill, Photos curated by Chris Reynolds
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McDonald’s introduced the McNugget. “The Price Is Right” debuted Plinko. Michael Jackson unleashed the Moonwalk. Many mustachioed politicians wore many brown suits. For golf fans, 1983 was Seve Ballesteros in his glorious prime, cruising to his second green jacket by four shots at the rain-delayed Masters and, perhaps more importantly, inspiring Team Europe to a near upset of the Americans in the Ryder Cup. It also rained at the U.S. Open, where Larry Nelson took down Ballesteros and Tom Watson at Oakmont to win the second of his three career major titles. Watson won the last of his eight career majors at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, famously smashing a 2-iron approach under the wind on No. 18 to secure his victory. Hal Sutton had a massive season, capturing both the PGA Championship and the Players Championship.
Amy Alcott overcame 40 mph gusts and fellow future World Golf Hall of Famers Beth Daniel and Kathy Whitworth to win the Nabisco-Dinah Shore Invitational, the third of her five career majors. Seven strokes behind after the third round, Patty Sheehan charged back to win the LPGA Championship and capture the first of her six majors. In 1983 the Classique Peter Jackson Classic was considered a major, and Hollis Stacy won it. And, of course, the fabulous Jan Stephenson won the U.S. Women’s Open.
They did it all with a backdrop of Flashdance, The Police and Return of the Jedi. Here’s a brief look back at some of the names and faces from a rollicking year.
The 1983 Ryder Cup is one of the great dividing lines in the competition: It was the last year of American dominance. From 1935 to 1983, the U.S. went 19-1-1. The monotony of the beatings turned it into a second-tier event, to the point that Tom Weiskopf went bear hunting instead of playing in 1977. Then came Seve Ballesteros to lead the charge for Team Europe, valiantly lifting his side into worthy competitors. His shot on No. 18—where he was thought dead under the lip of a fairway bunker and smashed a 245-yard 3-wood that some swear moved some 50 yards from left to right in the air to get to the front of the green and help him save a halve against Fuzzy Zoeller—is considered one of the greatest in the history of the competition.
The Americans held on to win 14-13 under the leadership of captain Jack Nicklaus. But Ballesteros still claimed a moral victory. “We were all in the team room feeling down and dejected,” Nick Faldo would later recount. “We all knew we had got mega-close. At that point, in marches Seve. He had his fist clenched and his teeth were bared, just like he is when he’s excited, and he kept marching around the room saying to everyone, ‘This is a great victory, a great victory.’ Then he said, ‘We must celebrate,’ and he turned the whole mood of the team around. That was the spark: Seve in 1983. By 1985 we knew we could do it.”
And they did. The Europeans beat the U.S. in 1985. And again in 1987. They kept the Cup with a draw in 1999. The victories, fueled by Ballesteros’ intensity, sent the competition spiraling from low-key friendlies to what it is today: biennial blood feud.
Jan Stephenson had a hell of a year in 1983. She won three times on the LPGA, including the U.S. Women’s Open. It was her life’s ambition to win the Open, dreaming up winning scenarios as a little girl in Australia. Cedar Ridge Country Club in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, was unbearably hot and difficult for the 1983 event. Stephenson shot 3-over 74 in the final round for a 6-over total, but it was enough to hold off JoAnne Carner and Patty Sheehan by a shot. It would be the last of three major titles for Stephenson, who rang up 16 victories in her glittering career.
But, then and now, many people still wanted to talk about her risqué, braless 1977 cover photo in Sport magazine. She was still a few years from the even more infamous photo of her in a bathtub covered with nothing but golf balls. There is no doubting Stephenson’s talent and résumé on the course, but she will always be known for bringing overt sexuality to the LPGA.
From the time she won Rookie of the Year in 1974, Stephenson was groomed by LPGA Commissioner Ray Volpe to be a new face of the Tour. She was enthusiastic about her role on and off the course, and it ruffled feathers throughout the late ’70s and the ’80s. It also brought bigger galleries.
“It is her golf game that draws crowds,” one newscaster said at the time, “although it has been speculated that men don’t simply watch Jan Stephenson to learn how to improve their golf swing.”
Stephenson, who dated Donald Trump for a year in the mid-’70s, was one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world in 1983. Wearing the twisted headbands and flashy colors of the era, she made statements at every tournament. “If we had all the social media back in my day,” Stephenson later said, “I’d be Kim Kardashian.”
No pampered country-club upbringing here. Calvin Peete was born one of nine children in Detroit. A broken elbow in his youth meant he could never fully straighten his left arm. To make ends meet in his teens, he picked beans and corn in the fields of South Florida. He didn’t even take up the game until he was 23. And yes, he was an African-American in a time when most country clubs were still segregated. NBC Sports columnist Joe Posnanski summed it up: “There have been few people in America over the last half century who were less likely to become a professional golfer.”
Yet there was Peete in 1983, winning the Georgia-Pacific Atlanta Golf Classic and the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic for the sixth and seventh of what would be 12 PGA Tour victories. What Peete lacked in pedigree and distance, he made up for with guile and accuracy—legendary accuracy. Peete led the Tour in driving accuracy every year from 1981 to 1990, dipping under 80 percent once. During those 10 years, he averaged hitting 81.9 percent of fairways. The highest one-year mark since 1990? Doug Tewell at 82.5 in 1993.
Peete was a trailblazer. In 1979, he became the second black player to qualify for the Masters. In 1985, he became the first black player to win the Players Championship. Jack Nicklaus wanted him for his 1983 U.S. Ryder Cup side, but an obscure PGA of America rule required players to possess a high-school education. So Peete, whose work ethic was already legendary, studied up and earned an equivalency diploma. He made the team and helped the U.S. to a narrow victory.
“I love this game,” Peete told The New York Times in a 1983 profile. “You’re out in the fresh air and you can meet good people, like the President of the United States—I once played a round with President Ford—and you have a chance to make $400,000 a year.”