“When I sit down and think about it, it’s just bonkers, isn’t it?” laughs David Cannon.
In a career spanning almost 40 years, the acclaimed snapper has documented some of sport’s most famous moments through the lens of his camera. From World Cups to Olympic Games, Cannon has travelled the world and shot the lot.
However, arguably his most iconic picture is one that he took just 350 miles from his front door.
You'll know it, of course. It’s that photo of Seve Ballesteros, a smile as wide as the first fairway of the Old Course, punching the air in delight after winning the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1984.
The picture has become the most enduring image of the charismatic, swashbuckling Spaniard. Seve even later adopted it as his own personal logo.
Suffice to say, it’s a shot that Leicester-born Cannon is immensely proud of.
“It was shot on slide film which was tricky because to be spot on with your exposure,” he recalls. “Obviously, it was manual focus in those days, so you had to be spot on with that, too.
“I had a 400mm f/2.8L lens and I remember I was sitting on the bank at the back of the 18th green in the long grass. He could not have been a more perfect distance from me. The pictures you see are basically full frame as I shot them.
“And yet, at first, I thought I’d got my positioning all wrong. He holed the putt and gave this huge first pump in the direction the clubhouse and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m in the wrong place.’ Then, suddenly, he turns to the side and starts fist-pumping to the crowd right in front of me. I just kept shooting.”
Instinctively, Cannon knew he had something special and carefully marked the spool with a felt-tipped pen to distinguish it from the other 50-plus rolls of film he’d shot in St Andrews that week.
“I’d originally planned to drive back to London on the Monday morning with a friend who spent the week helping me out and basically acting as my ‘runner’,” he says. “However, knowing what we had and being anxious to get the roll developed as soon as possible, we jumped in the car and drove the through the night. We were waiting outside the processing lab when the dark-room manager arrived for work on the Monday morning.”
By midday, Cannon got his first glimpse of the pictures.
“I’d seen other photographers’ versions of the same moment in the Monday morning’s newspapers when I was waiting for my film to be processed. But when I saw that one slide in particular, I remember thinking, ‘Blimey, this blows everything else out of the water.’”
Duplicates were quickly processed and, the next day, were sent around the country’s golf magazines. Back in London, Cannon had another pressing priority.
“I remember driving to the Slazenger offices in Croydon,” he recalls. “Their marketing manager, a guy called John Parsons, was a good friend of mine. I rushed round there on the Tuesday with a set of the pictures. By the following week, they were being used in an advertising campaign for Slazenger on the London underground and at bus stops. That was a great sale for us.
“It’s funny, the original pictures were kept in a fireproof safe at the Allsport offices, where I was working at the time. We used to have a system where we’d put a red dot on a particularly valuable slide to identify it as an original that was never, under any circumstances, to be sent out of the office. Well, those Seve slides got four red dots - one in each corner!”
For Cannon, the thrill of capturing such a spectacular shot was magnified exponentially by the subject matter. Seve had been his sporting hero stretching back to their first meeting in May 1976.
“I was 21-years-old and playing off scratch for my county,” he recalls. “I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to play in a pro-am at my home club, The Leicestershire, and luckier still to get drawn with Seve.
“It was only his second full year as a professional and he was still a very young guy, probably not much older than 19 or 20. I only found this out fairly recently but apparently he and his brother slept in a car in the car park at the club.
“Anyway, I knew that course like the back of my hand. I’d played it for five years solidly and I thought I knew every blade of grass on that track – but he hit it into places I’d never seen before. It wasn’t that he was wild. He was was long. I mean ridiculously long. The noise of his strikes was brilliant. He wasn’t very chatty, probably because he didn’t speak much English. He was just in classic pro-am mode. But what I saw that day was just awesome and then, of course, two months later, he finished runner-up in the Open. It’s a day that sticks in my brain like a beacon.
“I honestly could never have imagined that eight years later I’d be taking the most famous pictures of him that ever been taken.”
Naturally, Cannon was delighted when the outline of his St Andrews image was chosen by Seve to be his personal motif – and even more so when the Spaniard had the image tattooed on his left forearm.
He recalls: “I remember speaking to him on the range at a tournament – I forget where exactly – and I noticed that he had a new tattoo on his arm, obviously having used my picture as a reference. I joked, ‘Hey, you owe me for that!’ He laughed and said, ‘No, no, no, no, David. No, no, no.’
“The truth is, I never charged Seve a penny for using those pictures. I never would. Not in a million years. Our Madrid office phoned me up not all that many years ago to say that his family were using the image all over the place and that we should bill them. I said, ‘No chance. That’s not going to happen.’ For me, it was just an honour to have one of my images used by the great man. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am. Believe me, luck plays a big part in golf photography. You can be ten yards out of place and you don’t get the picture.”
Over the years, Cannon and Seve struck up a firm friendship.
“Golf is a hard sport to photograph,” he adds. “You can go many, many months without getting what I’d call a top-class golf picture. You’ve got to be out there a lot. But characters help, and that’s partly why Seve was so amazing. Every day you went out with him, you knew there was a pretty high chance of a brilliant picture. He’d never let you down. His personality, his passion – he was every photographer’s dream.
“He also played in an era when the top golfers generally didn’t wear hats and so you truly got to see their whole expression. Seve showed every emotion on his face. He was brilliant to shoot.”
On another occasion, in 1996, Cannon flew to Ballesteros’ home in Pedreña on an instruction shoot for a golf magazine.
“I’d flown in from Australia the day before. I was very jetlagged and it was a freezing cold February afternoon. It went really well and, at lunchtime, because he was in a good mood, we talked him into going to down to the beach with a 3-iron and a 9-iron to do some more shots. We spent ages shooting more pictures, Seve hitting ball after ball down the beach. It was brilliant.
“We finished up and I packed away all my camera equipment. I was starting to make my way back to the car with it all when I heard this, ‘Hey, hey hey!’ behind me. I turned around to see Seve looking at me. ‘We are not finished yet,’ he said. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Now, we go find the balls!’ No joke, he made me walk down the beach to find all the balls he’d hit. If I recall correctly, we found 35.”
That’s not to suggest that all of Cannon’s experiences of the Spaniard were completely positive.
“Oh, he could be a right scoundrel,” he laughs. “Sunderland of Scotland used to pour its entire marketing budget into Seve. I remember this one year, during the Scottish Open at Gleneagles, he was supposed to give us three hours to do a winter shoot for them. I flew up on the Monday to shoot on Tuesday. That morning, we find Seve at the course. ‘Not today,’ he says. ‘I am too busy.’ Wednesday morning, same story. He properly gave us the run-around. We eventually got him on the Sunday morning – and only then because he had missed the cut.
"The irony was that all week it had been pretty stormy, with rain delays and so on, until the Sunday when there was not a cloud in the sky. Sunny skies for a waterproof shoot. You couldn’t have made it up. Honestly, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to photograph in my life.”
Strangely, Cannon’s favourite picture of the thousands he took of Seve is not his winning moment from the 1984 Open but, instead, an action shot he took at Royal Lytham in 1988, above.
“It completely sums up the man,” he says. “You can see written on his face the challenge of hitting that shot off an uphill lie, into the wind with a 2- or 3-iron, the breeze ruffling his hair. He birdied that hole, too.
“I’d have loved to have been shooting him in ’76, though. Some of those follow-through positions he got into were remarkable. Those classic ‘Arnold Palmer’-style finishes.
“He was just a unique and wonderful man.”