The image is still fresh—chilling, comic, fascinating: Seve Ballesteros at the last Ryder Cup, granite-faced as he watches yet another of his drives whiz over the gallery and into the trees of Oak Hill, each embarrassing ricochet audible to the thousands of stunned witnesses.
Of course, the sight of golf's ultimate competitor performing so ineptly in the game's ultimate competition—in his three matches, Ballesteros hit three fairways—was as impossible to turn away from as a train wreck. Six months later it is still painful to watch him play. Ballesteros arrives this week at the Masters playing the worst golf of his 22-year professional career, his confidence in tatters and with no clear sign that things will get better. Ballesteros used to come to Augusta, where he has won twice and held the lead during the final nine on three other occasions, primed to display his gifts of imagination, touch and determination on the course that best brought them out. This season Ballesteros, who will turn 39 two days before the opening round, comes hoping his favorite stomping ground will stir some remnant of his former self.
Ballesteros has emerged from too many slumps to accept the notion that this one represents a final crossroads, but the way he winces when asked about his play at Oak Hill or the state of his golf swing or the condition of his troublesome back or anything else that hints at the current fragility of his game indicates an urgent desire to quiet a mind noisy with doubts.
"It's very painful when you have to talk all the time about these things," the Spaniard said in fluent English after being asked to discuss his situation. "It's not easy—why this, why that, and what are you going to do and why don't you do this. It drives you crazy. It's not good, because the mind is very powerful, and everything is negative, negative, negative."
Point taken. But the problem is, when it comes to his golf, there is nothing positive. It has been this way since his game went into a steep tailspin shortly after his last victory, in May 1995, at the Peugeot Open de España. After that Ballesteros missed four straight cuts, culminating in an 81-80 at the Scottish Open. Had it not been for the Ryder Cup, Ballesteros says, he would have stopped playing for the year in July. Immediately after the match Ballesteros announced he would be taking a five-month break from competition, the longest of his career.
At his birthplace in Pedrena, Spain, and at his tax-haven residence in Monte Carlo, Ballesteros played with his children; went to the movies with his wife; followed a strict exercise regimen of cycling, running and weight training; reveled briefly in being named the captain of the European Ryder Cup team for the 1997 match in Valderrama, Spain; and thought as little as possible about golf. He didn't even hit a ball until Jan. 9, apparently harboring the hope that all the knots he had worked himself into would somehow untangle and he could return to the game with a clear mind.
Ballesteros made his first official appearance last month at the Moroccan Open—his torso visibly tighter from the loss of 12 pounds, his bronzed features even more chiseled and his back apparently in fine fettle. But the moment he stepped onto the golf course, it was as if he had never been away. Ballesteros christened his return with a drive blocked weakly to the right and shot 78-79. Last week he withdrew from the Players Championship, complaining of a bad back.
Although his putting, short game and trouble shots remain superb and his short-iron play is respectable, once Ballesteros moves up to about a four-iron, he is lost. He scatters all manner of misses—although his most frequent are low hooks and high fades. His straight shots tend to balloon too high. In his prime a long hitter, Ballesteros is now not only crooked off the tee but short as well. The riflelike retort that used to mark his club's contact with the ball has been replaced by a muffled clank that he says "hurts your ears."
"It's shocking to see how much Seve has deteriorated," says swing instructor David Leadbetter, who has worked intermittently with Ballesteros over the years. Curtis Strange speaks for most of his peers when he says, "We all struggle at times, but I have never seen a player of Seve's caliber hit the kind of shots he was hitting at the Ryder Cup."
"My game cannot get any worse," Ballesteros sadly conceded during his debacle in Morocco. "I used to overpower the golf course, and now the golf course overpowers me."