Ballesteros' fire goes out, and his career flickers


April 13, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He crossed the fairways to uninterrupted applause, the galleries as thrilled as ever to see him, the Spaniard with the Pepsodent smile and magical game. It has been this way at the Masters, or at any tournament actually, for more than a decade now. The only difference yesterday was the middling score on the board. Looks like another lost week for Seve Ballesteros.

It is all a little hard to believe, this. Ballesteros' legend is safe if he never wins another tournament, but at issue suddenly is how often he will indeed win again, if ever -- a startling question to ask about a golfer considered the world's best just two years ago.

He is only 33, an age at which many golfers just begin to discover their potency, but he was an Amadeus who began winning tournaments 15 years ago, and there are signs that after cramming the substance of a long career into a decade, he is losing that palpable fire that has made him so identifiable, successful, the most charismatic golfer since Arnold Palmer.

It is a little sad for the sport, for his exuberant game has long uplifted any tournament, but here are the facts: He won the last of his five majors three years ago, won only one minor title last year -- he called the year "terrible" -- and this year has missed the cut in two of the five he has played. He is 1-over after two rounds this week, enough to make the cut, but the leaders are a postcard away.

What has happened to Seve? The malaise affecting his game is difficult to pinpoint. His putting touch isn't gone. He is still erratic off the tee, but he was always erratic. His short irons find the green. He is reworking his swing, but what pro isn't?

What is missing, it seems, is the fire. The rallies. The magic. It is plainly evident that all those years at the pinnacle have exacted a toll. He is tired, burned out . . . something. He admits it. "I got into trouble by pushing myself," he said last year. "Obviously, after so long, for many years, it must happen what happened to me."

True enough. Every athlete has slumps, and Seve has been winning majors since 1979, when, at 21, he became the youngest British Open champ in a century. Until the spread of European champions in the last five years, he alone gave European golf the respect it barely deserved. He won two Masters, three British Opens, 47 tournaments around the world, all without a slowdown. He was due.

But is this just a slump, or is it a true dimming of his star? It is impossible to tell, for golf is a maddening, capricious game that comes and goes without explanation. No one would be surprised if Seve suddenly up and won another Masters this weekend, coming from behind. But the timing of his troubles does include circumstances that merit inspection.

The fifth son of a dairy farmer, raised in the small fishing village of Pedrena, he was married in 1988 to the Ivy League-educated daughter of one of Spain's wealthiest men, a bank president. They had their first child last fall, a boy named Baldomero, named after Seve's father.

Seve is happy. Seve is content. Seve carries pictures of his family in his wallet. It is too easy to say that this contentment has sapped him of his drive, but it is an enormous change in life for a man who was driven for years in part by the fact that he came from working-class circumstances, far outside golf's tony society.

When he was young he went to a country club near his house, but as a caddy, not a member. He sneaked onto the course at twilight and taught himself to play using sticks and discarded club heads. Now, he doesn't need to work for the rest of his life. He is as comfortable inside that tony society as one can get. His in-laws are so snooty they didn't approve of him at first, wary of his upbringing.

Whether this drastic change in his life has undercut his golf is uncertain, but it is true that he isn't quite the swashbuckler anymore, or at least no longer readily makes the amazing recoveries for which he is famous. Nearly all of his major titles were marked by memorable shots -- off a parking lot, over a scoreboard, rabbits out of hats. He still gets in trouble, just doesn't get out as easily.

The magic just isn't holding. He was 4-under through 13 holes yesterday after birdies on Nos. 12 and 13, but then an errant drive got him in trouble on No. 14, not a particularly challenging hole, and he double-bogeyed. The old Seve rarely blunted such momentum.

There are those who say it the result of a gradual erosion in his game, the result of his refusal to play more than occasionally on the U.S. tour. "If you're going to achieve any kind of recognition as the best player," Tom Kite told The New York Times, "you have to play against the best."

Ballesteros demurred, saying "maybe" his absence hurt him "a bit" in the majors, but otherwise not. He is as much at a loss as anyone to explain what is wrong. He has spent much of the last eight months in a reclusive pose, at home, reworking his swing at the course on which he began playing. He is no longer even Spain's No. 1 player, having been passed by Jose-Maria Olazabal.

After his early-morning 70 yesterday, he went straight to the practice tee and hit bucket after bucket of balls, working mostly on his short irons, launching ball after ball toward the dark clouds, working in a grim silence. The tournament went on behind him, the roars of galleries echoing every few minutes. Roars that used to be his. He just listened to them. Practiced and listened. Hit more balls.

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