THE IMAGE is still fresh--chilling, comic, fascinating: Seve
Ballesteros at the last Ryder Cup, granite-faced as he watches
yet another of his drives whiz over the gallery and into the
trees of Oak Hill, each embarrassing ricochet audible to the
thousands of stunned witnesses.
Of course, the sight of golf's ultimate competitor performing so
ineptly in the game's ultimate competition--in his three matches,
Ballesteros hit three fairways--was as impossible to turn away
from as a train wreck. Six months later it is still painful to
watch him play. Ballesteros arrives this week at the Masters
playing the worst golf of his 22-year professional career, his
confidence in tatters and with no clear sign that things will
get better. Ballesteros used to come to Augusta, where he has
won twice and held the lead during the final nine on three other
occasions, primed to display his gifts of imagination, touch and
determination on the course that best brought them out. This
season Ballesteros, who will turn 39 two days before the opening
round, comes hoping his favorite stomping ground will stir some
remnant of his former self.
Ballesteros has emerged from too many slumps to accept the
notion that this one represents a final crossroads, but the way
he winces when asked about his play at Oak Hill or the state of
his golf swing or the condition of his troublesome back or
anything else that hints at the current fragility of his game
indicates an urgent desire to quiet a mind noisy with doubts.
"It's very painful when you have to talk all the time about
these things," the Spaniard said in fluent English after being
asked to discuss his situation. "It's not easy--why this, why
that, and what are you going to do and why don't you do this. It
drives you crazy. It's not good, because the mind is very
powerful, and everything is negative, negative, negative."
Point taken. But the problem is, when it comes to his golf,
there is nothing positive. It has been this way since his game
went into a steep tailspin shortly after his last victory, in
May 1995, at the Peugeot Open de Espana. After that Ballesteros
missed four straight cuts, culminating in an 81-80 at the
Scottish Open. Had it not been for the Ryder Cup, Ballesteros
says, he would have stopped playing for the year in July.
Immediately after the match Ballesteros announced he would be
taking a five-month break from competition, the longest of his
At his birthplace in Pedrena, Spain, and at his tax-haven
residence in Monte Carlo, Ballesteros played with his children;
went to the movies with his wife; followed a strict exercise
regimen of cycling, running and weight training; reveled briefly
in being named the captain of the European Ryder Cup team for
the 1997 match in Valderrama, Spain; and thought as little as
possible about golf. He didn't even hit a ball until Jan. 9,
apparently harboring the hope that all the knots he had worked
himself into would somehow untangle and he could return to the
game with a clear mind.
Ballesteros made his first official appearance last month at the
Moroccan Open--his torso visibly tighter from the loss of 12
pounds, his bronzed features even more chiseled and his back
apparently in fine fettle. But the moment he stepped onto the
golf course, it was as if he had never been away. Ballesteros
christened his return with a drive blocked weakly to the right
and shot 78-79. Last week he withdrew from the Players
Championship, complaining of a bad back.
Although his putting, short game and trouble shots remain superb
and his short-iron play is respectable, once Ballesteros moves
up to about a four-iron, he is lost. He scatters all manner of
misses--although his most frequent are low hooks and high fades.
His straight shots tend to balloon too high. In his prime a long
hitter, Ballesteros is now not only crooked off the tee but
short as well. The riflelike retort that used to mark his club's
contact with the ball has been replaced by a muffled clank that
he says "hurts your ears."
"It's shocking to see how much Seve has deteriorated," says
swing instructor David Leadbetter, who has worked intermittently
with Ballesteros over the years. Curtis Strange speaks for most
of his peers when he says, "We all struggle at times, but I have
never seen a player of Seve's caliber hit the kind of shots he
was hitting at the Ryder Cup."
"My game cannot get any worse," Ballesteros sadly conceded
during his debacle in Morocco. "I used to overpower the golf
course, and now the golf course overpowers me."
How did this happen? At a time when contemporaries such as Nick
Faldo, Greg Norman and Nick Price--players Ballesteros used to
beat regularly--are in the prime of their careers, why is the man
acknowledged as the most talented of the bunch all but washed
up? An obvious answer is fatigue. It's easy to forget that
Ballesteros has been a professional since the age of 16,
something he regrets.
"I should have started three years later," he told biographer
Lauren St John. "I lost all my growing-up years. I haven't lived
a normal life."
Ballesteros, who grew up poor, has also suffered from
self-imposed pressure to make as much money as possible. His
globe-trotting in the 1980s for exorbitant appearance fees seems
unwise in retrospect, first because of the wear and tear, and
second because it was the main factor keeping him from joining
the PGA Tour, where others such as Faldo, Norman and Price
improved their skills.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Ballesteros, who comes from a
family-oriented culture, has not won a major title since
marrying in late 1988. His brood now includes three children,
ranging in age from five to two. "When I'm not playing well, I
ask myself, is it worth it to miss my family to play like that,"
he says. "That question is always in my mind."
On the golf course Ballesteros's intensity and style of play,
which constantly requires high-risk recoveries and clutch
putting, have also been enervating. "Maybe his system has just
had enough," says Sandy Lyle, another supremely talented player
whose flame seems to have been doused too early. Strange, with a
rueful smile, also speaks from experience. "Look how many great
years Seve had," he says. "Hey, it don't last but so long."
A quick perusal of Ballesteros's career shows that he has been
losing his skills for years. Though he was on a decidedly upward
trajectory for the first decade of his career, winning 37 titles
by the age of 27, including four majors, his second decade has
been less productive.
By his own admission Ballesteros suffered a major blow to his
confidence in the final round of the 1986 Masters. Leading by
one and facing a four-iron second shot to the par-5 15th,
Ballesteros hit a fat toe hook that line-drived into the pond
guarding the green. The ensuing bogey knocked him out of the
lead for good. The next year Ballesteros got into a playoff with
Norman and Larry Mize, but he three-putted from 25 feet on the
first extra hole and left the course in tears.
Those losses did not destroy Ballesteros, for he won the 1988
British Open, but he was never quite the same after that
disastrous four-iron in '86. The British victory was due to one
of the greatest putting performances of his career. A change to
a flatter swing plane already had robbed Ballesteros of power
and subsequently would fail to provide the expected benefits in
control. Since 1988 Ballesteros has won his share of European
tour events, 12. But in the majors, the ultimate measure, he has
stopped being a serious factor. Out of the 22 majors he has
entered in this decade, he has missed the cut eight times.
For all his gifts Ballesteros has never been a consistently good
ball striker. While his best shots are superlative, his worst
ones are terrible. The wild shot that can lead to double bogey
or worse always looms nerve-rackingly large. And though
Ballesteros's skill in escaping trouble may be unequaled, it is
no match for a Faldo's or a Norman's from the middle of the
fairway. "Even at his best, I always thought Seve was living
right on the edge," says Lanny Wadkins. "He erased a lot of
mistakes with his short game. I equate Seve with Crenshaw, but
Ben would have his straight-hitting periods. Trying to play from
crooked drives can wear on you."
Ballesteros is a relatively poor ball striker for an obvious
reason. Although his swing is aesthetically pleasing, it is not
grounded in sound mechanics. For years he played on talent and
heart, but his shaky foundation has betrayed him. Essentially
Ballesteros's path into the ball is too steep. From the top of
his swing Ballesteros fails to flatten his plane into the ball
into the rounder sweeping motion that is the mark of the most
consistent hitters. Instead, his club comes down at a sharp
angle. "Seve's problem is his swing," says Bernhard Langer with
characteristic pith. "He must change it."
Faldo, Norman and Price eliminated similar downswing moves
through extended work with instructors. Ballesteros, in
contrast, has always had trouble staying with one teacher. His
longest such association was with Mac O'Grady, from the mid-'80s
until 1994. But since the two fell out after last year's
Masters, Ballesteros has once again been on his own. By nature
both impatient and distrustful of mechanics, Ballesteros is also
suggestible, a blend that has led him to work sporadically and
without continuity with many instructors. That has been a recipe
for confusion: Listen to many, borrow liberally, but closely
follow no one.
"Patience is not my strongest point," he says. "I'm very much
for getting things quickly." Adds Joe Collet, who was
Ballesteros's manager for 15 years, "If Seve has one defect, it
is that he overweights the short-term solution. He always wants
a panacea, a quick fix. That has hurt him with building his game."
Ballesteros is attempting to return to the natural action he
developed as a boy hitting rocks with a three-iron on the
beaches of Pedrena. It means he will be trying to swing the way
he did when he was playing his best, in the early '80s, using a
longer, more upright backswing in the hope of recapturing a
natural groove. "The game used to be very simple for me," says
Ballesteros. "After a round I would never worry about the game,
never think about it. Lately, all I do is think about the game.
I need to go back to what is natural and stop worrying." That
comes as heartening news to those who have an understanding of
Ballesteros's style of play.
"Seve looks like he has lost the freedom in his swing and gotten
caught up in trying to put himself in positions," says Crenshaw.
"He can't forget that his feel, his instinct, is his gift. For
him to play the way he can play, he has to trust that gift."
"It's going to take time," Ballesteros said recently while
practicing. "The important thing is to start playing the game
again. If I do that, I will win trophies. I'm going to fight for
it." And if he loses the fight? "You know, there are worse
things in life than just playing bad golf," he said. "This is
nothing. Nothing. We all suffer one way or another, but other
people suffer more than this. I have had a wonderful career. I
want it to continue."
With that, he returned to a two-hour session on the range during
which he hit no iron longer than a six. Periodically he would
ask his caddie, Martin Gray, if his backswing was "bigger,
higher," but mostly he was silent. When his friend and fellow
player Eduardo Romero stopped to watch, Ballesteros hit several
good shots to Romero's approving nods. Without looking up,
Ballesteros only said, "Poco a poco."
Little by little is a long road, but it is one that Ballesteros
may have finally accepted. If his path is right, few doubt he
has the resolve to return to the highest levels of the game.
"When it comes to competition, Seve burns like a nuclear
reactor," says O'Grady. "But he became unhappy because he
started letting winning majors mean everything. He got so
disappointed that he stopped loving the game. He has to turn
that reactor loose on the process of becoming a great golfer
again. If he does, there's no doubt he can play as well as
Norman. In fact, in a street fight, I'd take Seve."
Gary McCord is more concise. "Seve has too much heart to be
finished," he says. "You can't kill that heart. He'll be back."
It probably won't be this week. He's training his sights on the
British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. The last two times
the championship was held there, Ballesteros won.
Several years ago, while in the throes of another slump,
Ballesteros was asked the secret of golf. "To forget," he said.
If he emerges triumphant from this slide, perhaps it will be
because he learned that the secret isn't to forget, but to
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [Seve Ballesteros]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Seve hopes to regain the higher swing (left) he used to win the 1980 Masters. [Seve Ballesteros with higher golf swing]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [See caption above--Seve Ballesteros with lower golf swing]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN (2) Ballesteros might be bushed due to the stress brought on by his spectacularly wild style of play. [Seve Ballesteros golfing from bushes]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN O'Grady (right), told Seve that he should stop concentrating on the majors. [Seve Ballesteros and Mac O'Grady]