Seve Ballesteros had a bad year in 1986. He won only four national championships. But in America, he was an exile from the PGA Tour about whom little was heard. His most notable showing came when he blew the Masters by hitting a horrid 4-iron shot into the water on the 15th hole, where other contenders were scoring eagles. He finished tied for 24th in the US Open and missed the 36-hole cutoff at the PGA Championship.
Overseas, however, it was a very different story. The 29-year-old Ballesteros was Europe's No. 1 player, winning among other events the Irish, Monte Carlo, and French Opens in succession, and adding the Dutch Open three weeks later.
Bernhard Langer couldn't keep up with him on the European circuit, and neither could anyone else. His total winnings for the year came to more than $420,000, and he earned several times that sum in endorsements, appearance money, and exhibition fees.
If Ballesteros was forgotten in America, he was far from gone on the world golf scene. Many authorities continue to argue that he is the finest all-round player anywhere, a contention the proud Spaniard does not dispute.
What he disputes ferociously is the PGA Tour's right to tell him how much he must play in this country. He was suspended from the US tour after failing to play a stipulated minimum of 15 tournaments in 1985.
Ballesteros had agreed to play that many, but subsequently decided that nine would be enough, spurning commissioner Deane Beman's quiet attempts at a compromise. He said he would play where he wanted to play, when he wanted.
This year, he will be allowed to play his eight or nine tournaments in this country. That's because he has become a nonmember of the PGA Tour, a status he no doubt wishes he'd never forfeited in the first place by joining the organization.
He will play the majors plus the World Series of Golf and a smattering of other events here, probably coming over for the million-dollar Doral Ryder Open at the end of this month. He says he is thinking of playing his way into the majors, is generally happy with the outcome of his dispute with Beman, and is looking forward to the reduced US schedule.
While Ballesteros has never been comfortable outside Europe, let alone compensated so well by American sponsors who cannot pay him guarantees, he does have certain other incentives for playing in the United States - including a young woman friend from his hometown of Santander who attends Brown University in Providence, R.I.
More than a few US sponsors wanted Seve in their fields last year and will want him again this season. They consider him the most exciting and talented player in the world, and he may well be.
He is one of the most powerful drivers in the game and, almost antithetically, probably the most imaginative short-game player. That is a combination so unusual as to be nearly unique.
``I've learned volumes about the short game being around him,'' says Greg Norman, the best player in the world in 1986. ``He can invent more little recovery shots than most of us ever learn. His touch is incredible.''
When his emotions all are running in the right direction, Ballesteros strides a golf course like an all-conquering field general. He goes on the attack, guns his shots at the flagsticks, and stops at nothing short of dramatic conquest.
He has won the Masters and the British Open twice each, and Jack Nicklaus for one thinks he can win them several more times. He was brilliant as the British-European team upset America in the Ryder Cup Matches of 1985, and should be again when the two squads square off in September at Muirfield Village in Ohio.
``He's the best match player in a long while,'' says a knowing English journalist. ``You Americans have given up on match play, which is the original and most compelling form of competition, and that's a pity. Seve loves the challenge of going head to head and taking the big chance when it's called for.''
Americans are facing up to the reality that foreign players have become a telling force in the game in recent years. Ballesteros has been joined at the top of the game by West Germany's Langer and Australia's Norman, and more are coming. The second-best player in Europe last year was Jos'e-Maria Olazabal, a young Basque who tied Ballesteros for the Spanish professional championship.
``Watch out for him,'' warns Ballesteros. Watch out in 1987 for Ballesteros, too.