Masters champion charges toward golfing greatness

Seve Ballesteros, the mercurial young Spaniard who won the Masters Tournament , is threatening to become the first foreign player to attain greatness without playing the American tour regularly.

He now has captured the Masters twice (he was the youngest winner ever in 1980) and the British Open once, not to speak of two dozen lesser titles around the world. And yet he plays only a smattering of US tournaments.

Asked after his victory here if he could envision playing in the United States more, Ballesteros tucked his tongue firmly into his cheek and replied, ''Some year I will come over to play full-time to see how good I am.''

He is well aware of the widespread feeling that he cannot fulfill his potential unless he competes week-in and week-out against the best competition, which is in the US. He is not so sure of that.

''I probably will play three more tournaments over here,'' he said in his improving English, ''the US Open, PGA, and Westchester. The dollar is too high compared to the peseta. Also it's hard to be so far from home all the time. Ask American players how many tournaments they can play in Japan.''

The standard answer to that question is two.

The Augusta National Golf Club is one place in America to which Ballesteros wants to return for as long as he is able.

''It is my favorite course in the world,'' he says. ''I love it because it resembles my course in Spain, because it is so pretty, and because it has wide fairways too.''

Ballesteros is a notoriously long and wild driver of the ball, but Augusta's broad landing areas and lack of rough and bunkers were to his advantage.

''I don't think my driving is improving much,'' he says. ''I'm hitting smarter though. I don't take so many chances.''

A handsome, dashing caballero, Ballesteros has tempered his boldness on the golf course.

Here's an example. He came to the 500-yard, par-five 15th hole in Monday's final round with the lead and a well-known set of options.

He could try to reach the green in two, which his strength would enable him to do. The reward might be an eagle three and the roaring approval of the huge crowd.

Or he could lay up short of the water in front of the green, virtually assuring himself a safe par and secure grasp on the championship.

His gambler's nature told him to go for it. His hard-earned tactical sense told him to play safe.

He laid up, made a boring par, and marched on to an easy victory.

Amazingly, no one made a strong run at Ballesteros on a leader board that featured virtually every big name in the sport except Jack Nicklaus, who had to withdraw due to back problems. There was Craig Stadler, the defending champion; Ray Floyd, the PGA champion; Tom Watson, the US Open champion.

So what happened? Ballesteros began his fourth round in the rain-delayed tournament birdie-eagle-par-birdie; four holes, four under par.

Watson, playing with Ballesteros, eagled the eighth to pull within two strokes, but then bogeyed three holes in a row with an untypical outburst of poor putting. Ballesteros was able to shoot two over par on the back nine and win going away with a final round 69 in a 72-hole total of 280, eight under par on the long Augusta course.

Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, both from Austin, Texas, finished at four under par early and tied for second as the leading contenders all backed up.

''The key here is to wait for birdies,'' Ballesteros said later. ''If you get behind and try to make them, they won't come. I made mine early, and that was the difference.''

Ballesteros presents probably the most impressive blend of power and finesse in golf today. He can drive the ball 275 yards to set up an eagle on the second hole or he can pop a difficult little wedge shot close to the hole to save par on the treacherous 11th.

Said Kite, ''He has a lot of shots, and when he gets hot he's on fire. Trying to catch him is like a Chevrolet trying to catch a Ferrari.''

Watson compared Ballesteros to Arnold Palmer (who played wonderfully here the first two rounds) for flamboyance and exciting play.

The 26-year-old Ballesteros also demonstrated a welcome sense of humor.

Asked how many languages he speaks, he said, ''A lot. I speak Spanish, Argentine, Cuban, English - six or seven.''

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