With a swashbuckling style that has captivated golf fans everywhere, Seve Ballesteros has spent his career showing the world that the U.S. golf bully can be had. Some of the Spaniard's most compelling moments have come in the homeland of those he measures his game against—two Masters championships, for example, and a leading role on the European team that beat the U.S. in the Ryder Cup last fall. Indeed, where golf is concerned, Ballesteros and America are good for each other.
No wonder then that the gallery around the 18th green at the Riviera Country Club seemed so let down and disoriented on Friday when Ballesteros ended a rare two-week stay on the PGA Tour by missing the cut at the Los Angeles Open, which was won by Chip Beck with a 72-hole total of 267,17 under par. The victory, Beck's first in 10 years on the Tour, was worth $135,000.
A week earlier, at San Diego, Ballesteros had finished 18th. That means the man acknowledged to be the most exciting golfer in the world, who has played in a mere 14 U.S. tournaments since the end of 1985, will make only six more appearances in the U.S. this year.
"As far as just watching him hit shots, everybody out here misses Seve," said Jay Haas, who shot 65-68 playing head-to-head with Ballesteros at Riviera, and finished tied for sixth. "I know I get jacked up when I get a chance to play with him."
March 7, 1988
So did the Riviera galleries, even as Ballesteros labored. "He has an aura and charisma about him that's so powerful," said former Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, Ballesteros's partner in the pro-am. "I never played in the World Series, but playing with Seve made me feel like I had. We've got to get him out here more often."
It won't happen, at least not this year. Under a PGA Tour regulation that went into effect in 1984, a member of a foreign tour must compete in at least 15 events a year to gain full Tour status. Ballesteros, who is a member of the European Tour, met the standard in 1984 but became convinced that such a heavy U.S. schedule, combined with commitments in Europe and Japan that bring rich appearance fees, was leading to burnout. The next year he played in only nine events, leading commissioner Deane Beman to suspend him for 1986.
Last year Ballesteros received five sponsor's exemptions for Tour events and invitations to the three majors in the U.S. Although he earned an impressive $305,058 (32nd on the money list) in those eight tournaments, Ballesteros failed to win in the U.S. He lost a Masters playoff with Greg Norman and eventual winner Larry Mize, lost a playoff to J.C. Snead at the Westchester Classic, tied for second at Doral, finished third in the U.S. Open and had the lead in the final round of the PGA before slipping to 10th place.
"It was almost a great year," says Ballesteros. "But I missed three or four important putts that changed everything." Would they have had a better chance of going in if he had had more preparation in the U.S.? "I hope not," he says.
Ballesteros says he would be willing to play in 12 Tour events. But the rule was already changed once to accommodate him, and the Tour's policy board is reluctant to modify it again. "You can't put one player above the game," says Gary McCord, a CBS broadcaster and part-time pro who was on the policy board that set the 15-tournament minimum. "Even though the Tour needs the magnetism Seve brings so bad that it's unbelievable, we can't devalue the privilege of playing for $32 million by changing a good rule."
Others, notably Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, believe Ballesteros should be allowed to play whenever sponsors want him. "I mean," says Nicklaus, "have you ever heard of Seve hurting a tournament?"
Ballesteros's attitude is outwardly devoid of any of the anger he showed after being suspended by Beman. "There is nothing I can do," he says. "I play as much as they let me play, and it's better than not playing. It's not so bad."
After winning two Masters and two British Opens by the age of 27, Ballesteros now has gone three years without a major championship. Although he has played at a high level, he has developed a disturbing pattern of making fatal mistakes. He lost the 1986 Masters to Nicklaus by dunking a four-iron into the water on the 15th hole. He was eliminated from last year's Masters playoff when he missed a five-footer on the first extra hole. In the U.S. Open his putter deserted him during a crucial stretch on the final nine, and a triple bogey cost him dearly in the fourth round of the PGA.
At times last year Ballesteros looked haggard from the strain. Some European writers suggested that the lost opportunities in majors made him appear desperate and stressed out. To an extent, he agrees. "For me, there is always great pressure," he says. "It's good sometimes because I always try very hard, but when you pressure too much, things don't happen."
However, he emphatically denies that the game and its demands are wearing him down. "No no no no," he says, pounding his fist against his chest, over his heart, for emphasis. "I am still very strong for golf. I still have my hot blood."
Nicklaus, too, had a three-year drought after turning 27. Nick Faldo, for one, sees Ballesteros as a tremendous talent making the transition from à free-swinging power player who relies on natural feel to a more controlled, compact swinger whose shots are more consistent. "He has taken some big swing changes into competition, and I think that's why he's hit some bad shots under the gun, but he's building something that will win him more tournaments over the next 10 years," says Faldo, who struggled for two years while building the swing that won last year's British Open.
But even a Ballesteros in transition is considered the best player in the world by most of his fellow pros. "Seve keeps his game at a consistently higher level than anyone else," says Scott Hoch. "His downside is higher than anyone else's downside."
The downside was on display at Riviera. Trying out a more upright swing, one he had worked on during the winter in Spain, Ballesteros sprayed tee shots in all directions on Thursday. One caromed off the chain link fence that borders the grounds of Mel Brooks's house, near the 12th fairway. Thanks to 10 one-putt greens, Ballesteros shot a two-over 73. On Friday he covered the front nine in one-under-par 34 but bogeyed the 15th hole to finish with a two-round total of 144, missing the cut by two strokes.
With lips grimly pursed, he left immediately for Spain, where he will play in two tournaments before returning to the U.S. for The Players Championship, which starts on March 24. Then he will embark on the majors. "This year I'd like to win the U.S. Open and PGA...the two majors I haven't won," he says. "But my only real goal is to do the best I can."
For the sake of golf history, let's hope the PGA Tour gives him the chance.