Spain’s Ballesteros is the world’s most gifted golfer
Spain’s Ballesteros is the world’s most gifted golfer
The world’s most gifted golfer is a Spaniard with manos de plata (hands of silver) and more than a touch of the conquistador. As handsome as Louis Jourdan and as moody as Marlon Brando, Seve Ballesteros is also a perpetual outsider, a farmer’s son born in a northern village in Spain who learned his golf on a nearby beach. Now he is playing a game populated by golfers reared on the manicured U.S. country club scene, who attended sunny college golf factories on scholarships. Ballesteros, who turns 32 on April 9—the last scheduled day of the Masters—is the best of them all. He still makes his home in the village of Pedrena, where he grew up. He has just married a Spanish woman and refuses to play the 15 tournaments a year in the United States that are mandatory for remaining in good standing with the PGA Tour. Ballesteros is to Europe born, and there he wants to remain, even if the price he must pay is his outsider status on the PGA Tour, if not in the hearts of golf fans around the world.
Ballesteros (pronounced bai-ES-tare-OS) is the most appealing golfer to come along since Arnold Palmer first hitched up his pants in front of his Army in the 1950s and attacked every golf shot. Young Seve was an infant then, the fourth son, who at the age of 6 was inventing golf shots on the beach with a handmade 3 iron that he fashioned from wooden sticks and discarded metal golf club heads. He practised so diligently that the club often splintered; the youngster simply made another, first putting the wooden shaft in hot water for a couple of hours so that it would fit into the iron head.
It was on the beach that Ballesteros developed his hands of silver, improvising shots that he still uses and that still astound observers. The golf world first became aware of his touch when he played a brilliant pitch shot into a hill between two sand traps on the last hole of the 1976 British Open at the Royal Birkdale club near Southport, England. The ball finished four feet from the hole, Ballesteros made the putt for birdie—and finished tied for second in the Open. He was only 19.
Since 1976, Ballesteros has hit many such shots. He won the British Open in 1979 and again in 1984 and 1988. He also won the 1980 and 1983 Masters and will be favored to win the glamor event at the Augusta National
course in Georgia this week. Two-time British Open winner Lee Trevino says that Ballesteros is the finest golfer in the world. Not many golfwatchers would disagree. Last year, he won seven tournaments in seven countries and more than $1 million in prizes. He led the European Tour, his home tour, in money winnings with $900,000, and also won $200,000 in just seven appearances on the U.S. Tour. In 1988, Ballesteros finished number 1 in the Sony Rankings, which rates golfers according to their performance around the world.
Despite Ballesteros’ crowd-appealing style and looks, PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman refuses to allow him to enter Tour events whenever he wants. In 1984, Ballesteros played the minimum 15 events in the 10-month PGA Tour season starting in January. But he decided that he could not play that many U.S. tournaments in 1985, and Beman suspended him from the lucrative PGA Tour for the 1986 season. The Spaniard has never been a big fan of American food or hotels and concentrates on his international appearances, many of which provide lucrative appearance fees. Indeed, Ballesteros has not applied for PGA Tour membership—nor does he intend to do so unless the Tour reduces its requirements.
Beman wants Ballesteros on the PGA Tour, but only under the rules that apply to others. He has said that anybody who is going to reap the benefits of the PGA Tour, the bestorganized and richest in the world, should play the 15 events, as do Australian Greg Norman and South African David Frost. Says Norman: “Fifteen is not that many to play. You should never make an exception for one person.”
Ballesteros will play eight tournaments in the United States this year: the five PGA Tour events that he can compete in on sponsors’ exemptions as a non-PGA Tour member, plus the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, over which the PGA Tour has no jurisdiction. One tournament Ballesteros definitely will not enter is the Canadian Open in June at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ont., one week after the U.S. Open in nearby Rochester, N.Y. The Canadian Open might have attracted Ballesteros had it taken place the week before the U.S. Open, enabling him to use it as a tune-up for the American title quest. But that spot is taken up by the Manufacturers’ Hanover Westchester Classic in Rye, N.Y., where Ballesteros is the defending champion.
Ballesteros is disappointed that the PGA Tour insists that he play 15 tournaments. He says that 12 is the most his schedule will permit: “I feel any player who is good for golf and who can bring people to the gate should be able to play anywhere in the world. I think it is unfair to the game of golf that this cannot be. The game
loses, people who come to watch lose, and I lose. Everybody loses.” Jack Nicklaus, for one, agrees with Ballesteros. “I am very much against restricting someone like Seve Ballesteros, or Sandy Lyle, if he were not a member of our Tour. They should be allowed to play if a
sponsor wants them. The current restrictions are too severe.”
Severe as the restrictions might be, they have not hindered Ballesteros’ earning power. He commands up to $100,000 simply to appear in some tournaments. Jerry Tarde, the editor of the U.S. magazine Golf Digest, which recently hired Ballesteros away from its rival, Golf, to contribute instructional articles, estimates that Ballesteros’ annual earnings are at least $5 million.
Ballesteros recently consolidated his wealth while enriching his life. In November, he married Carmen Botin, 24, his steady girlfriend for years, in a private ceremony in Spain. His wife, a 1987 Ivy League graduate from Rhode Island’s Brown University, where she earned a degree in organizational behavior, is the daughter of Emilio Botin Jr., president of the Bank of Santander and one of the wealthiest men in Spain. Botin now takes care of his son-in-law’s finances, but in the beginning Ballesteros was not accepted by the family. His mother-in-law expressed concern about his farm background and whether he could fit into the aristocratic Botin family.
Ballesteros is unlikely to worry about whether he fits in. He is more concerned with those hands of silver and displaying his flair. Few of those who watched his win at the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes last year will forget the tricky pitch and run he played from thick rough behind the final green. The ball finished right beside the hole. Ballesteros exploded with excitement as he saw the result. It was a conquistadorian gesture, reminiscent of Arnold Palmer in his prime. Said Ballesteros about the entire last round: “It was the best of my life. I have never been so much in control. I was 100-per-cent in charge.”
South African-born Nick Price, who finished second at Lytham, says that he saw something in Ballesteros that convinces him that he can do even better. “I think we’ll see a change in Sewy. He’s matured that little more,” says Price.
That “little more’’ could elevate Ballesteros to the category of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus as one of the best ever. Price says that Ballesteros lives to play golf. Nobody plays it better.
CLASS OF THE WORLD The Sony Rankings as of Dec. 31, 1988, based on points for performance over the past three years in tournaments around the world (wins in brackets), document the dominance of the foreign players: (T) Seve Ballesteros, Spain (14)........................1,458 (2) Greg Norman, Australia (18)........................1,365 (3) Sandy Lyle, Scotland (8).............................1,297 (4) Nick Faldo, England (5)................................1,103 (5) Curtis Strange, U.S.A.(10)...........................1,092 (6) Ben Crenshaw, U.S.A. ( 5)...............................898 (7) Ian Woosnam, Wales (13)................................854 (8) David Frost, South Africa (4)...........................843 (9) Paul Azinger, U.S.A. (4)..................................825 @ Mark Calcavecchia, U.S.A. (4).........................819
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