Give Seve Ballesteros a blunt stick of wood and his talent would make it gorgeous. He learned to play golf with a rusty 5-iron in the dirt, so anything beyond a lone borrowed club has always been luxury to the 33-year-old Spaniard. He is his own invention and so is his game. His gift is for creating something perfectly unique out of his detriments and imperfections.
Give Ballesteros a bagful of clubs and a swath of green course, and he is arguably the greatest player in the world. Maybe a handful of people would debate that, a Nick Faldo of Britain or Curtis Strange of the United States, but Ballesteros usually ends the annual discussion by winning another major championship. If he acquires fewer of them than he wishes, often succumbing in a lifelong struggle with his emotions, it is a continually fascinating struggle, a willful man playing an intolerant game.
"I am not a very mechanical player," he said. "I am natural. I am unpredictable. I don't play like a robot, one shot to the fairway, one shot to the green. I hit many shots off line. I think people are very familiar with those shots. It's my recovery they like to see."
It is not just Ballesteros's three British Open and two Masters titles that have secured the adoration of whole continents over his career. He is a compellingly delicate balance between the sublime and disaster, who once missed nine greens and still shot 69 at the Masters. Even when he plays poorly there may be some moment when a wedge in his hand is magic, like watching Fred Astaire turn a coat rack into a dancing partner.
Golf becomes strangely expressive when Ballesteros plays it. He has a different shot for every occasion, and a different mood for every occurence. At any moment the grass, the wind, the trees may disturb him. His face is a malleable bronze sculpture, he draws his lips in a grim line, he mutters, he gestures wildly.
The sum of all this is called temperament. It is the reason he is both the player of his generation, only Tom Watson winning more majors in the '80s, and at times a disappointment to himself.
"I think my temperament is the one that kills me," he said. "I get hot too easy. It's no good for this game. You need to be very cool. I am fighting this all the time."
Ballesteros merely arrived at the Kemper Open at Avenel yesterday and everybody knew it, how could you not? The muscular but fluid power of his swing drew throngs even in the rain.
He is making his first appearance in the area in eight years. One reason he has chosen to come to par-72 Avenel is to ready himself for the U.S. Open, June 14-17 at Medinah in the suburbs of Chicago. His play of late, typically, he describes as "a little disorganized. I am not completely in control of my whole game."
Ballesteros' presence in the field is a rare opportunity for Americans to watch him. He continues at odds with the PGA Tour, which requires him to play more events than he cares to for membership. Fiercely pro-European, he refuses to give up his continental schedule, and so can play only a limited number of U.S. events.
A lack of play in this country may be one reason Ballesteros rarely has been a serious factor in the Open, his best performance a tie for third in 1987. The usually severe courses and deep rough penalizing his lack of precision heavily. He has come here intent on preparing better for the prestigious event that not only has escaped him, but sometimes enraged him.
Majors are more and more on Ballesteros's mind as he grows older, possessed of no Opens, or PGAs either. "Majors are what people recognize," he said.
When he won his first British in 1979, it seemed he would fill shelves with such trophies. His most recent performances he describes as unsatisfactory compared to how regularly he has contended, with an uncomfortably long gap between his 1984 and 1988 British Open titles.
"My expectations were better than what I did," he said. "They are hard to win . . . . I would like to reach 10, but you never know. Maybe I win one or two more, or 15, or no more at all."
The problem is that Ballesteros has a wildness that causes him to explore every part of the golf course. He frequently finds trouble not even he can get out of, a momentary loss of concentration, an errant swing costing him.
In the '86 Masters he struck a ball into the water as Jack Nicklaus was on his way to miracle victory. In '87 he lost a famed Masters playoff by three-putting on the first extra hole, while Larry Mize went on to chip in and defeat Greg Norman. Last year he contended yet again at Augusta, only to hit in the water while Faldo went on to win a playoff over Scott Hoch.
"Consistency is what makes you win in a major," he said. "We are all looking for that. It's not how many good shots you hit or how many birdies you make. It's how few mistakes you make that lets you win."
But the Ballesteros temperament may come with his inventiveness, and certainly he would not exchange his uncanny ability to muster whatever shot he needs. There are few situations he cannot hit his way out of. At the Masters one year, after he brutally slashed his way from the depths of Rae's Creek, he remarked laughingly, "Next time I'm going to kill that creek."
The breadth of his game was learned on the savage courses of his home around Santander, Spain. Ben Crenshaw once said, "He was born with a 3-iron in his hand." Actually, a member of the local club gave the farmer's son a well-used 5-iron when he was 9 years old.
"When I start playing I was learning with the one club," he said. "So that makes me think how to manage with one club, how to create."
Ballesteros rose from the rocky terrain of Santander like the purest example of a natural. He won that first British Open in 1979 largely from the parking lots, saving himself all across the course with his raw, scrambling ability. He never contemplated any other profession.
"I never think about it," he said. "What would I be? A farmer, a fisherman?"
It is difficult to envision Ballesteros doing anything other than playing golf, it seems exactly what he is meant to do as he practices trouble in a pouring rain at Avenel, putts in the chill evening, smoothly lofts bunker shots in a drizzle, dozens of different spins and speeds and ways of making a ball do what he asked of it.
"I feel very fortunate what has happened to me in this life," he said. "It's not just winning, it's the pleasure of hitting the shots that you want, to visualize it and do it. To play this game and have pleasure."