By all rights, these should be heady days for the European tour. Last September's epic Ryder Cup upset of the U.S. created expectations that the tour would reap the same kind of spoils generated by the European team's historic triumph in 1985: enhanced stature for the players, new respect for their level of play and, most important, a surge of interest. Unfortunately, any carryover from Oak Hill has done little to alter the problematic reality of the European tour.
The tour's most significant player, Nick Faldo (SI, March 11), is long gone to America. The biggest draw, Seve Ballesteros, looks ready to start missing cuts at the same rate he is missing fairways. The best player for the last three seasons, Colin Montgomerie, needs a Dale Carnegie course even more than his first major. The principal television carrier is no longer the BBC but Rupert Murdoch's Sky-TV, which can't be received without a satellite dish (fewer than two million viewed the '95 Ryder Cup in the United Kingdom, compared with more than seven million in 1985).
So no one was surprised that the Casbahs were less than abuzz when the tour tiptoed into the ancient city of Rabat last week for the Moroccan Open. Ballesteros, making his first official appearance since the Ryder Cup and taking up exactly where he left off, shot a depressing 78-79 that prompted him to apologize to fans and tournament organizers, though he stopped short of returning his appearance fee. Although Rabat is a lot closer to the Continent than earlier tour sites such as Singapore, Perth and Johannesburg, the Moroccan Open, like seven of the tour's first eight events, was not in Europe. But proximity to its home base was irrelevant, as the paltry galleries that wandered the fairways at the Royal Golf Links of Dar-es-Salam (Arabic for House of Peace) never grew much beyond 1,000 people, even counting members of Morocco's royal family. House of Peace, indeed.
Clearly the European tour is in need of many things, not the least of which is new, young talent. In Morocco the winner was Peter Hedblom, a 26-year-old Swede. At the moment, however, the most impressive young player on the tour is Alexander Cejka (pronounced CHAY-ka), the first Czech-born golfer to play the circuit.
Cejka, 25, finished a dull 23rd in Morocco, but last season, his second full year on the tour, he racked up three victories. They included the season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama, Spain, site of the 1997 Ryder Cup. American fans will get their first look at Cejka during the Masters. He was invited after finishing sixth on Europe's money list. Although only 5'8", Cejka has presence. Muscular, with an expressive face, he has a direct manner and a pack-a-day cigarette habit that is reminiscent of the young Arnold Palmer. Then again, it's hard to envision Palmer wearing a ponytail. but more on that later. Cejka's style of play, particularly his putting, is bold, much like his life off the course. The garage at Cejka's house in Munich contains a Ferrari Testarossa and a Porsche 911, both of which he has pushed to near 200 mph on the German autobahn.
Notwithstanding his last cars. Cejka appears built to last. Born in the Bohemian spa town of Mari�nsk� L�zn? Cejka is an individualist who is hungry to succeed. Whether he makes it or not, he has already had a remarkable journey. It was his father, also named Alexander, who introduced Cejka to golf at age five at one of the few-courses in Czechoslovakia to survive Communist rule. Cejka's parents divorced, and when he was nine, his father took him on what the boy thought was a holiday to the coast of Yugoslavia. Instead, it turned out to be a perilous trek to freedom.
"My father told nobody what he was going to do, because there was nobody to trust," says Cejka, who speaks fluent English, German and Czech. "If they had caught us, they would have put us in jail; maybe they would have shot us. I didn't know what was happening. We took trains, we walked a lot and we slept outside, once in an old boat on the sand next to the sea. We swam across rivers, which I thought was fun. The main thing I remember was when we got to Switzerland, my father suddenly hugged me very hard. He said, 'We made it. We are through.' He was crying."
The father and son, who remain close, ultimately settled in Frankfurt, doll became an outlet for the boy, and a nearby driving range a refuge. "I don't know why golf. because I liked all sports, but the game gave me my first rewards," Cejka says. "I practiced hard and won a trophy. I practiced harder and won another." Although he couldn't play for German amateur teams as a schoolboy because he still had a Czech passport, Cejka continued to improve, and at age 18 he turned pro. The next year he returned to a free Czechoslovakia and won the Czech Open. Two years later, in 1992, Cejka, now a German citizen, won the title again. Still, he bounced out of five European tour Q schools before earning his playing card in 1993. In his rookie season of 1994, he finished 102nd on the money list.
As a fringe player Cejka was known primarily as an oddball. The Bohemian had shoulder-length hair that he usually wore in a ponytail. Off the course he favored a Euro-grunge look, relaxing in ripped jeans and a T-shirt. "I just like long hair," he says. "I always wore it neat, and I was clean, like Steven Seagal or Lorenzo Lamas. The other players looked at me a little strangely, but that didn't matter. I do what I want to do." The odd looks stopped when Cejka, after improving his driving and long-iron play with the help of his coach, German teaching pro Peter Karz, won his first event, in Spain, last February. Four months later he won again, in Austria. He then capped the year with the Volvo title in October.
Cejka is a man of his word. After his first victory he and Karz made a pact that if he won again, they would shave off their hair. So after his victory in Austria, off came the locks. "I had no choice; a bet is a bet," he says. "I hated to do it. People were scared of me." When he made his annual visit to Munich's Oktoberfest, police, wary that he might be a skinhead, did not allow him into a bar with his friends. Cejka's hair has grown back to a conventional length, and he doesn't intend to cut it for some time. If he continues to play well, he plans to break the ponytail barrier in 1997 at both the Masters and the Ryder Cup. "Perhaps the Masters will send me a letter telling me not to do it," he says. "I know they are strict. I think it is more interesting when all the pros don't look the same."