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CHECK OUT CEJKA ALEXANDER CEJKA, A CZECH WITH ROOTS IN THE COLD WAR, HOPES TO HEAT UP THE EUROPEAN TOUR

March 18, 1996
March 18, 1996

Table of Contents
March 18, 1996

CHECK OUT CEJKA ALEXANDER CEJKA, A CZECH WITH ROOTS IN THE COLD WAR, HOPES TO HEAT UP THE EUROPEAN TOUR

By all rights, these should be heady days for the European tour.
Last September's epic Ryder Cup upset of the U.S. created
expectations that the tour would reap the same kind of spoils
generated by the European team's historic triumph in 1985:
enhanced stature for the players, new respect for their level of
play and, most important, a surge of interest. Unfortunately,
any carryover from Oak Hill has done little to alter the
problematic reality of the European tour.

This is an article from the March 18, 1996 issue Original Layout

The tour's most significant player, Nick Faldo (SI, March 11),
is long gone to America. The biggest draw, Seve Ballesteros,
looks ready to start missing cuts at the same rate he is missing
fairways. The best player for the last three seasons, Colin
Montgomerie, needs a Dale Carnegie course even more than his
first major. The principal television carrier is no longer the
BBC but Rupert Murdoch's Sky-TV, which can't be received without
a satellite dish (fewer than two million viewed the '95 Ryder
Cup in the United Kingdom, compared with more than seven million
in 1985).

So no one was surprised that the Casbahs were less than abuzz
when the tour tiptoed into the ancient city of Rabat last week
for the Moroccan Open. Ballesteros, making his first official
appearance since the Ryder Cup and taking up exactly where he
left off, shot a depressing 78-79 that prompted him to apologize
to fans and tournament organizers, though he stopped short of
returning his appearance fee. Although Rabat is a lot closer to
the Continent than earlier tour sites such as Singapore, Perth
and Johannesburg, the Moroccan Open, like seven of the tour's
first eight events, was not in Europe. But proximity to its home
base was irrelevant, as the paltry galleries that wandered the
fairways at the Royal Golf Links of Dar-es-Salam (Arabic for
House of Peace) never grew much beyond 1,000 people, even
counting members of Morocco's royal family. House of Peace,
indeed.

Clearly the European tour is in need of many things, not the
least of which is new, young talent. In Morocco the winner was
Peter Hedblom, a 26-year-old Swede. At the moment, however, the
most impressive young player on the tour is Alexander Cejka
(pronounced CHAY-ka), the first Czech-born golfer to play the
circuit.

Cejka, 25, finished a dull 23rd in Morocco, but last season, his
second full year on the tour, he racked up three victories. They
included the season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama, Spain,
site of the 1997 Ryder Cup. American fans will get their first
look at Cejka during the Masters. He was invited after finishing
sixth on Europe's money list. Although only 5'8", Cejka has
presence. Muscular, with an expressive face, he has a direct
manner and a pack-a-day cigarette habit that is reminiscent of
the young Arnold Palmer. Then again, it's hard to envision
Palmer wearing a ponytail, but more on that later. Cejka's style
of play, particularly his putting, is bold, much like his life
off the course. The garage at Cejka's house in Munich contains a
Ferrari Testarossa and a Porsche 911, both of which he has
pushed to near 200 mph on the German autobahn.

Notwithstanding his fast cars, Cejka appears built to last. Born
in the Bohemian spa town of Marianske Lazne, Cejka is an
individualist who is hungry to succeed. Whether he makes it or
not, he has already had a remarkable journey. It was his father,
also named Alexander, who introduced Cejka to golf at age five
at one of the few courses in Czechoslovakia to survive Communist
rule. Cejka's parents divorced, and when he was nine, his father
took him on what the boy thought was a holiday to the coast of
Yugoslavia. Instead, it turned out to be a perilous trek to
freedom.

"My father told nobody what he was going to do, because there
was nobody to trust," says Cejka, who speaks fluent English,
German and Czech. "If they had caught us, they would have put us
in jail; maybe they would have shot us. I didn't know what was
happening. We took trains, we walked a lot and we slept outside,
once in an old boat on the sand next to the sea. We swam across
rivers, which I thought was fun. The main thing I remember was
when we got to Switzerland, my father suddenly hugged me very
hard. He said, 'We made it. We are through.' He was crying."

The father and son, who remain close, ultimately settled in
Frankfurt. Golf became an outlet for the boy, and a nearby
driving range a refuge. "I don't know why golf, because I liked
all sports, but the game gave me my first rewards," Cejka says.
"I practiced hard and won a trophy. I practiced harder and won
another." Although he couldn't play for German amateur teams as
a schoolboy because he still had a Czech passport, Cejka
continued to improve, and at age 18 he turned pro. The next year
he returned to a free Czechoslovakia and won the Czech Open. Two
years later, in 1992, Cejka, now a German citizen, won the title
again. Still, he bounced out of five European tour Q schools
before earning his playing card in 1993. In his rookie season of
1994, he finished 102nd on the money list.

As a fringe player Cejka was known primarily as an oddball. The
Bohemian had shoulder-length hair that he usually wore in a
ponytail. Off the course he favored a Euro-grunge look, relaxing
in ripped jeans and a T-shirt. "I just like long hair," he says.
"I always wore it neat, and I was clean, like Steven Seagal or
Lorenzo Lamas. The other players looked at me a little
strangely, but that didn't matter. I do what I want to do." The
odd looks stopped when Cejka, after improving his driving and
long-iron play with the help of his coach, German teaching pro
Peter Karz, won his first event, in Spain, last February. Four
months later he won again, in Austria. He then capped the year
with the Volvo title in October.

Cejka is a man of his word. After his first victory he and Karz
made a pact that if he won again, they would shave off their
hair. So after his victory in Austria, off came the locks. "I
had no choice; a bet is a bet," he says. "I hated to do it.
People were scared of me." When he made his annual visit to
Munich's Oktoberfest, police, wary that he might be a skinhead,
did not allow him into a bar with his friends. Cejka's hair has
grown back to a conventional length, and he doesn't intend to
cut it for some time. If he continues to play well, he plans to
break the ponytail barrier in 1997 at both the Masters and the
Ryder Cup. "Perhaps the Masters will send me a letter telling me
not to do it," he says. "I know they are strict. I think it is
more interesting when all the pros don't look the same."

His peers now appreciate the difference. Costantino Rocca calls
him Pierino, after an Italian cartoon character. "He does
everything backward, but in the end, everything comes out
right," says Rocca.

If that pattern continues, Cejka could be the good news the
European tour so badly needs.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN The Bohemian Cejka already has plans to break convention at the Masters. [Alexander Cejka]