Watching his 30-foot put roll toward the hole, Severiano Ballesteros suddenly bent at the knees and crouched low as if to leap over a tall building in a single bound. Nearer and nearer the ball moved, dead on line, and the kid from Spain raised his putter in anticipation, the proud matador raising his sword to glisten in the sunlight before inviting the bull in.
The ball fell out of sight. A birdie. A magnificent birdie three on the fifth hole of the Masters golf tournament. A birdie on perhaps the best pure golf hole here, a 450-yard-par-4 with a green made maddening by undulations suggesting elephants asleep under a velvet blanket. As the ball fell out of sight, Severiano Ballesteros strode directly away from his work, leaving the caddy to fetch the ball.
To the applause of the bedazzled, who had seen him birdie three of the first five holes on a Masters Sunday, Ballesteros doffed his cap in thanks. But never did he slow down. He never slowed in his purposeful stride toward the next tee. "What he is saying," said his brother, Manuel, a golf pro himself, "is 'Bring me a braver bull.'"
By day's end, Augusta National Golf Club was as brave and honorable an opponent as Ballesteros could ask. And he was its conqueror. The newest Masters champion, the youngest champion, Ballesteros is a fighter. "My heart must be very beeg," Ballesteros said, the patently outrageous pride made tolerable by the innocence and charm of a smiling yough who, as he said the words, reached inside his Masters champion green jacket to see exactly how beeg his heart is.
You'd like Ballesteros. You'd like him for the way he uses his gift. He saves back nothing.
Manuel Benitez, who became El Cordobes, the most famous bullfighter in the world, sneaked away from his house in the south of Spain at midnights of his youth. He found bulls on a farm. They were old bulls, the dangerous kind, those who were excused from death in the afternoon as reward for their bravery. El Cordobes dared them to show him he didn't belong in their presence.
In the north of Spain, out of a bedroom with no windows, the child Severiano Ballesteros left in the dark to hit golf balls with his single club, a hand-me-down three-iron from Manuel. He had no shoes with spikes in them. Those would come at 17, only six years ago. In the dark, Ballesteros hit golf balls.
"If I hear noise," he said to those who wondered how he knew the result of such practice, "it is in trees. If I hear no noise, I have hit it on the green." p
You'd like Ballesteros for the simplicity that marks his thought. An American pro might talk of swing arcs and computerized parabolas. The noble savage from the bedroom with no windows says the swing is bad if you can hear the ball rattling in the trees.
Why, someone asked, is Ballesteros so good at escaping from the woodsy predicaments into which his occasional wild drives send him?
"The more you go into the trees, the more practice you get," Ballesteros said with a smile. "If Lee Trevino goes into the trees, he doesn't know how to get out because he never goes into the trees."
Is simple, no?
Coming onto the 18th green, someone asked Ballesteros, what thoughts went throughhis mind?
"'Well, you are winner,'" Ballesteros said.
Is simple, yes.
You'd like Severiano Ballesteros because what you see is what you get. He is not hiding. With a 10-shot lead today, he played terribly for an hour, three-putting the 10th, hitting into the water twice and hooking his drive at 14 into the woods. Was he, with the world falling apart, an angry man? Was he worried? Had he been thinking of the course record and so was overconfident?
These are all legitimate questions that, when asked, would drive your average American touring pro into a paranoiac frenzy from which not man, woman or cocker spaniel would be safe, Ballesteros laughed his way through them.
"I was very comfortable with 10 shots ahead," he said. "But I was only three in front so quick. I said to myself, 'You are so stupid. You must try very hard now or you going to lose the tournament.'"
And: "I was very angry after the 13th. 'What, you going to lose the tournament?'"
And: "I was thinking of the course record, but next thing I was thinking of losing the tournament."
Thinking of losing the tournament. Thinking of losing. Thinking. The confession was extraordinary. Only a year ago, when Ed Sneed lost a three-stroke lead in the last three holes, he bravely denied thinking of any danger. In his security, Ballesteros can admit to doubt. He can even admit this was the hardest week of his life.
"My mission was to win the Open (the British Open, the tournament most of the world cares the most about)," Ballesteros said. He did that last summer. "I feel this (this Masters) was the hardest to win. So much pressure all week. Even in my house. Thinking about the tournament all the time. Very beeg pressure. Really was in very beeg pressure this week."
He was gloriously up to it. He is a Spanish treasure, a hero who is said to command $250,000 a year in appearance money from European tournaments. He has a $500,000 deal to sell golf clubs in Europe. If some American pros are jealous of him, seeking to knock down his growing reputation as a great player despite his two major championships simply because he doesn't play here full time, they might be asked: Would you rather play in Paris for six figures or at the Quad Cities for peanuts?
This guy can play anywhere. Under the admitted pressure, he was 13 under par for a week, winning by four strokes. Under choking pressure with four holes to play today, he remembered what he learned from his fellow world traveler, the indisputably great Gary Player.
"You learn a lot from a superstar," Ballesteros said, adding, "Especially how to fight."
The heart was very beeg. Could he match Jack Nicklaus' record of 17 major championships? "I don't think so. Seventeen. That ees a beeg salmon."
Well, who knows? "Manuel help me a lot. He tell me great things when I was 13, 14. 'You are the greatest, you are the best.' Very important when you a little boy to hear that."
And after his hour of peril today, when he had escaped from the woods at the 14th, what did he think when his birdie putt of 25 feet almost fell out of sight? Was he, by then, a trembling basket case who would be happy just to make it in alive? What did he say when he rolled that 25-footer an inch past the hole?
Severiano Ballesteros smiled, his brown eyes an imp's.
"I say, 'Son of a beetch," the fighter said.