How did this happen? At a time when contemporaries such as Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Nick Price—players Ballesteros used to beat regularly—are in the prime of their careers, why is the man acknowledged as the most talented of the bunch all but washed up? An obvious answer is fatigue. It's easy to forget that Ballesteros has been a professional since the age of 16, something he regrets.
"I should have started three years later," he told biographer Lauren St John. "I lost all my growing-up years. I haven't lived a normal life."
Ballesteros, who grew up poor, has also suffered from self-imposed pressure to make as much money as possible. His globe-trotting in the 1980s for exorbitant appearance fees seems unwise in retrospect, first because of the wear and tear, and second because it was the main factor keeping him from joining the PGA Tour, where others such as Faldo, Norman and Price improved their skills.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Ballesteros, who comes from a family-oriented culture, has not won a major title since marrying in late 1988. His brood now includes three children, ranging in age from five to two. "When I'm not playing well, I ask myself, is it worth it to miss my family to play like that," he says. "That question is always in my mind."
On the golf course Ballesteros's intensity and style of play, which constantly requires high-risk recoveries and clutch putting, have also been enervating. "Maybe his system has just had enough," says Sandy Lyle, another supremely talented player whose flame seems to have been doused too early. Strange, with a rueful smile, also speaks from experience. "Look how many great years Seve had," he says. "Hey, it don't last but so long."
A quick perusal of Ballesteros's career shows that he has been losing his skills for years. Though he was on a decidedly upward trajectory for the first decade of his career, winning 37 titles by the age of 27, including four majors, his second decade has been less productive.
By his own admission Ballesteros suffered a major blow to his confidence in the final round of the 1986 Masters. Leading by one and facing a four-iron second shot to the par-5 15th, Ballesteros hit a fat toe hook that line-drived into the pond guarding the green. The ensuing bogey knocked him out of the lead for good. The next year Ballesteros got into a playoff with Norman and Larry Mize, but he three-putted from 25 feet on the first extra hole and left the course in tears.
Those losses did not destroy Ballesteros, for he won the 1988 British Open, but he was never quite the same after that disastrous four-iron in '86. The British victory was due to one of the greatest putting performances of his career. A change to a flatter swing plane already had robbed Ballesteros of power and subsequently would fail to provide the expected benefits in control. Since 1988 Ballesteros has won his share of European tour events, 12. But in the majors, the ultimate measure, he has stopped being a serious factor. Out of the 22 majors he has entered in this decade, he has missed the cut eight times.
For all his gifts Ballesteros has never been a consistently good ball striker. While his best shots are superlative, his worst ones are terrible. The wild shot that can lead to double bogey or worse always looms nerve-rackingly large. And though Ballesteros's skill in escaping trouble may be unequaled, it is no match for a Faldo's or a Norman's from the middle of the fairway. "Even at his best, I always thought Seve was living right on the edge," says Lanny Wadkins. "He erased a lot of mistakes with his short game. I equate Seve with Crenshaw, but Ben would have his straight-hitting periods. Trying to play from crooked drives can wear on you."
Ballesteros is a relatively poor ball striker for an obvious reason. Although his swing is aesthetically pleasing, it is not grounded in sound mechanics. For years he played on talent and heart, but his shaky foundation has betrayed him. Essentially Ballesteros's path into the ball is too steep. From the top of his swing Ballesteros fails to flatten his plane into the ball into the rounder sweeping motion that is the mark of the most consistent hitters. Instead, his club comes down at a sharp angle. "Seve's problem is his swing," says Bernhard Langer with characteristic pith. "He must change it."