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Sullivan Becomes a Celebrity by Stepping Aside for Ballesteros

February 20, 1987|DAN HAFNER | Times Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago, Rob Sullivan was merely the obscure No. 5 player on Coach Eddie Merrins' UCLA golf team.

Suddenly, Sullivan is a celebrity. He is amazed at all the attention.

When Sullivan, 20, the leader among those who had to qualify for the Los Angeles Open, relinquished his spot so that popular Seve Ballesteros could play, he thought he was merely making a nice gesture for golf.

"I can't believe what has happened," Sullivan said Thursday at Riviera Country Club, where he was following UCLA teammate Brandt Jobe in the first round of the tournament. "That decision has done more for me than 13 years of golf.

"The Junior Chamber of Commerce has been wonderful, Seve Ballesteros took me to lunch and gave me some pointers, and people keep coming up to me to thank me for making it possible for Mr. Ballesteros to play. It's overwhelming."

L.A. Open management is given only four empty berths by the PGA Tour. Two were given to Japanese golfers and the other two were scheduled to go to the top amateur qualifiers. Sullivan shot a 69 at Hillcrest Country Club, topping the field, and Jobe was second.

When Ballesteros asked for an invitation so that he could play in both the San Diego and L.A. tournaments, all the spots here had already been filled. First, the chamber asked Jobe if he would give up his spot. He declined.

Sullivan, a sophomore at UCLA, was next in line. "The chamber people asked me if I would give up my spot," he said. "I thought about it for three or four days and decided I would do what was best for the sport.

"I had to sign some papers, and now I can choose to play in one of the next three L.A. Opens. For instance, I can enter the qualifying next year and, if I make the tournament, it will not count as the one they owe me. I don't have to make the decision until after I try to qualify.

"They also made it possible for me to play in the pro-am yesterday. I got to play with Jerry Pate and Steve Garvey, two wonderful people. Although Dad didn't get to watch me play in the tournament, he did get to caddie for me.

"I'm not at all sorry that I made the decision I did. They told me that the presence of Ballesteros would do wonders for attendance. It already has.

"I was told the pro-am drew a record crowd. There were about 200 people when I teed off on the first hole. That's the biggest crowd I've played before. That's what it's all about. I loved it. And I didn't play too badly, shooting a 73."

When Sullivan was only 7, his father turned him over to the professional at Barrington Hills Country Club near Chicago, and the youngster developed a strong feeling for the game as well as an aptitude for it.

Last summer, Sullivan won the Northern Amateur in Chesterton, Ind., with a 72-67-71--200.

'It was a big victory because it is one of the national amateurs," he said. "It means I can play in most of the major amateur tournaments. That was big, but nothing like this.

"I had lunch here with Ballesteros Monday. Besides thanking me, he talked a lot about golf. After meeting and talking to him, I felt even better about having him play in the tournament. He told me that he relies on feel and his eyes."

While in high school, Sullivan won the Chicago Junior Open and the Illinois Junior state championship in 1985. He wrote a letter to Merrins, seeking a scholarship at UCLA. He was accepted.

"I already knew I liked it out here," Sullivan said. "For one thing, I can play golf the year round. I don't have to lay off through the winter. Our golf team starts playing before school begins and keeps playing all year. I'm doing well in school, maintaining a 3.0 average. And now, this."

His father, Donald, and his mother, Barbara, went ahead with their plans to attend the tournament even though Rob is just a spectator.

"Partly because I do business here, we decided to come anyhow," Donald Sullivan said. "I helped Rob make the decision to yield to Ballesteros. I am sure it was the right one. He will never regret it.

"Caddying for him gave me a chance to meet Jerry Pate and Steve Garvey. I enjoyed that. No, I didn't tell (Rob) how to play. When I turned him over to the club pro, I quit telling him how to play."

Sullivan, who followed Jobe and the other members of his group--former Bruin Duffy Waldorf and former USC star Sam Randolph--for the first nine, had to leave to attend a communications class at UCLA. He didn't get to see Ballesteros, one of the late starters.

If he had seen the tremendous gallery following the long-hitting Spaniard, he would have been even more certain of his decision. To the delight of the crowd, Ballesteros eagled the first hole. But he bogeyed the second and finished with a two-under-par 69.

As for Jobe, he may be wondering if he made a mistake. He missed a chance for the limelight and didn't play well, besides. He had a 41 on the front side and ended up with an eight-over-par 79.

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