Severiano Ballesteros, the swashbuckling young Spaniard, is a throwback to the best in the American golf tradition. He learned the game in a caddie yard with a 5-iron handed down from an older brother, chipping Spanish coins called pesetas into a basket. After learning to manipulate those coins, hitting golf balls proved easy.
On Sunday afternoon here Ballesteros earned upwards of 4 million pesetas, which is how $55,000 translates into his native currency, by winning the Masters Tournament with a 13-under-par total of 275. Just a few days over 23, he is the youngest champion in Masters history, displacing Jack Nicklaus, who was several weeks older when he own the first of his record five Masters in 1963.
It was the second major championship in less than a year for Ballesteros. He won his first last summer in the British Open, coming from behind on the last day.
This time he led from start to finish. He tied for the top spot Thursday with David Graham and Jeff Mitchell at 66, moved out to a four-shot lead by shooting a 69 he second day, and widened it to seven after three rounds.
Sunday he quickly stretched it to 10 shots and was threatening the Masters record of 271 until he played the first 4 holes of the back 9 quite humanly. He bogeyed the 10th, made a double bogey on the devilish little 12th after hitting into the water (Tom Weiskopf took 20 strokes there in two days before mercifully missing the cut), and bogeyed the par-five 13th after dumping his second shot into the water in front of the green.
Suddenly his lead had plummeted to two shots over an onrushing Gibby Gilbert, who birdied the 13th through 16th holes, and the gray sky must have looked black to Ballesteros. Neither he nor anyone in the huge gallery at the famed Augusta National course could have failed to notice the similarity to events of a year ago, when Ed Sneed began the final round with a five-stroke margin, still led by three shots at the 16th, but bogeyed the last three holes and eventually lost to the late-rallying Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff.
On the par-four 14th Ballesteros missed both the fairway and the green to the left, but two-putted from the fringe to stabilize himself. The clincher came on the par-five 15th, where he reached the green in two and two-putted for a birdie.
Up ahead Gilbert bogeyed 18 to ease the pressure on the leader, who parred his way home to became only the second foregin winner along with Smith South African Gary Player.
"The most important shot to me was th e second on 15," Ballesteros said afterward in is improving English. "I hit a 4-iron to the green and got over the water."
How had he felt as his lead was shrinking from 10 strokes to two?
"I felt very nice when it was 10 and very bad when it was two. I told myself I was very stupid to be in such a very comfortable position and let myself get in trouble. I told myself I would have to try hard to win."
Gilbert and Australia's Jack Newton tied for second at 279, four behind Ballesteros. Hubert Green came in at 280 and David Graham of Australia, the PGA champion, at 281.
Thus three of the first five finishers were foreign players, and looking at it with a broad perspective, that has to be good for the game. Golf has always been an international sport, and a bright new personality like Ballesteros adds greatly to its appeal around the world.
Ironically golf is not popular in Spain. "You hear mostly about soccer and bull fighting," Ballesteros said. "I hope they put me in the paper at home for winning the Masters."
Winning a major title in America will not influence him to play more over here, at least for now. His US schedule for the rest of 1980 calls for this week's Tournament of Champions, the US Open, the World Series of Golf, and posssibly the PGA championship.
The rest of the time he will be competing overseas where he can command big appearance guarantees and where he enjoys himself in the more relaxed tournament atmosphere. "When they get tired of me over there, I will come over here," he says with one of his frequent smiles.
Ballesteros won once previously in this country, at Greensboro in 1978, but he has claimed two dozen other titles around the world, including the Dutch, French, Swiss, Japanese, German, and Scandinavian Opens as well as his current British championship.
Says Jack Nicklaus, who wound up disappointingly at 291, "At his age, with his strength, with his putting ability, he's going to be playing awfully well for a long time."
A darkly handsome man of 6 ft., 185 lbs., Ballesteros combines power and finesse with exciting brilliance. He has been known mainly as a long and occasionally wild driver -- he blasted his tee shot on the 17th hole here Saturday onto the 7th green from where he took a free drop and made a spectacular birdie -- but there is much more to his game than sheer muscle. He impresses the other players with his feel and adaptability around the greens.
"He can play any little shot you want," says Gary Player, "and he can invent one when he has to."
His ability around the greens grew out of Ballesteros's boyhood experience in that Spanish caddie yard with his hand-me-down club. American golf fans can thus appreciate him as a throwback to the tradition of Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson.