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Jim Murray: Ballesteros Is on Own Course to Greatness

February 22, 1987|By Jim Murray

Repeat after me: Severiano Ballesteros is the greatest golf player in the world.

He must be. Everyone says so. Everyone keeps telling you he is. Jack Nicklaus once said he was. Mac O'Grady will tell you he is. Sam Snead, no less, once placed him in the 10 best players he had ever seen in 55 years in golf. The respected golf historian Herbert Warren Wind acknowledged him as having "a chance to become one of the authentically great golfers of all time."

So, what are we dealing with here? A Spanish Hogan? Bobby Jones in a suit of lights? The matador with the 1-iron?

Can this nino from the beaches of the Bay of Biscay know something about hitting a golf ball the graduates of Brigham Young, the ex-caddies from Brackenridge Park, the course rats from Pebble Beach or a guy from Latrobe or Columbus cannot know?

And anyway, says who? What does the British press know? Who's kidding whom here? Golfers don't come from Santander, Spain. They come from San Diego. The University of Houston. Wake Forest. Edmonds, Okla. West Texas.

Anyway, where's the proof? How do you get to be hailed as the world's greatest golfer if you've won a whole bunch of things like Lancome Trophies and Suntory Whatchamacallums and Dunlop Something-or-others? Who cares how many Swiss Opens you win? Bunch of yodelers. What difference does it make how terrific you are at the Belfry, or Crans-Sur-Sierre; what could he do at the U.S.F.& G. Classic? Why isn't he winning at the Los Angeles Open at Riviera this week? If he's so great, how come he needs strokes from, say, Danny Edwards? One of the Wadkins brothers?

Oh, he won two British Opens. But Peter Thomson won five. And no one ever called Peter the world's greatest golfer. Seve won two Masters. Not bad. But Jack Nicklaus won six. Arnold Palmer won four. The Masters has never been the hardest tournament in the world to win. Harder than it used to be. But not the U.S. Open. Maybe not even the Greater Milwaukee Open.

So, he won twice on the U.S. tour (Greensboro and Westchester). Hey! Snead won 84 times. Nicklaus won 71. Hogan won 62.

Still, people begin to get this film over their eyes and their breath begins to come in short gasps when they speak of Seve. They get almost reverent. As if he were already a statue in the park.

He must be one of the great strikers of the ball of all time, right? Well, let's put it this way: Ben Hogan would cover his eyes. This swing is not a thing of beauty. It is not this gorgeous, fluid one-piece takeaway of a Sam Snead, it is more of the violent lash of a guy who finds a snake in his bed. Seve is pretty. His swing isn't.

Of course, it's an impressive swing for a guy who learned it on the beaches of the Costa Brava hitting pebbles with a tree limb. There are probably, oh, say, 20,000 golfers, max, in Spain. There's more than that in Palm Springs. It's an impressive swing for a guy whose only competition as a kid was a bunch of sea gulls.

Seve's uncle, Ramon Sota, was a world-class player of sorts (he was sixth once in the Masters), but the northern coast of Spain is not exactly a hotbed of championship golf. The natives there were, probably, understandably, mystified as to why a young man with athletic potential should be hitting stones with a stick when he could be learning which way the brave bulls hooked or how to play outside right for Real Madrid.

So, what makes Seve great? Well, first of all, it's a presence . Seve doesn't play a golf course, he fights it as if it were a bad bull. Manolete might go after a golf course this way. You can almost hear the trumpets playing the Virgin of the Macarena when he comes on a tee. Seve doesn't want a trophy. He wants two ears and a tail.

He's a far cry from the deadpan, ice-blond, matter-of-fact type of golfer we've been used to. Seve glowers, winces, grimaces, jumps into the air.

And he can put more suspense into a golf shot than the Dodger infield into a double play ball. When Seve takes the club back, you can be sure the ball is going a long way. What you can't be sure of is which way.

Seve figures the fairway is for sissies.

You know a golfer is made, is a figure for the ages when the history buffs can recall from memory specific shots of his, can put down a bronze plaque on the precise site they took place.

Seve has one of these. It is the place from where he won the 1979 British Open: the parking lot alongside the 16th hole, in bounds, but barely.

Anyone can win from off the fringe or even out of a trap. Seve won it from underneath a parked car.

It was the last day of the '79 Open at Lytham & St. Ann's. The 16th hole is a 353-yard wind-swept horror with rough on the right and a gale (usually) on the left.

Seve cranked up that day and hit his usual drive. It was 294 yards off the tee. Unfortunately, it was 25 yards off the fairway. It was also underneath a parked car.

Seve calmly took his free drop, took out his sand wedge--and made 3 on the hole.

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