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Genius Lost

A couple of years ago, while working for Golfweek magazine, I was assigned to cover the Irish Open at Ballybunion, a grand old links course in County Kerry where the wind often blows off the sea in tornadic bursts and the locals just shrug. 'A breeze in a hurry,' they call it.
Late in the afternoon of the first round a crowd had gathered near the far end of the practice ground where Severiano Ballesteros was hitting balls. It was, in fact, a larger gallery than I had seen on the golf course proper all day.
Seve, it turns out, was putting on a show with his driver. High cuts. Low draws. Dead, flat, straight stripes. Ropes. Screamers. Floaters. Bombs. He would stop every now and then between shots and gesticulate to his caddie while chattering in that characteristic rapid -ire Spanish of his. The locals barely murmured. But they were transfixed. So was I.
Here we were in the thrall of one of the few men who has ever lived that doesn't have to blush when someone uses the word 'genius' to describe their golf talents. And here we were in the presence of a man who can't 'find the world' with his driver when he gets on the course in competition.
It's a kind of cruel hoax and it is the main reason Ballesteros hasn't been able to produce more than one top 10 in his last seven years on the European Tour. He is still relatively young at 45. He has won five major championships and 50 tournaments worldwide. And yet it appears he will discover the lost continent of Atlantis before he will start hitting fairways with regularity in tournament play any time soon.
It's as if God woke up one morning in heaven and decided to play a trick on Francisco de Goya, the late great Spanish painter believed by many to be the father of modern art. It's as if God decided to allow de Goya to keep all his immense sketching skills but only with pens dipped in disappearing ink. De Goya would still be able to create masterpieces but they would vanish from his canvases 24 hours later.
Ballesteros was creating masterpieces on the range that day at Ballybunion. But everyone, himself included, knew he couldn't replicate them on the golf course across the street under the gun.
Seve has been a tortured soul now for some time.
Which brings us to the fuss over his disqualification from the recent Italian Open Telecom Italia. The issue surrounded a penalty assessed Ballesteros for slow play. Ballesteros claimed it had more to do with his Tour's unhappiness over his criticisms of their financial doings.
But what it was really all about was the man's genius. He once had it. He can still summon it up when it doesn't count. But he can't break an egg in the heat of battle. He is a prisoner of his monstrous talent and his long memory. And it has poisoned his life.
On page 71 of the 2003 European Tour media guide it is written in fine print that Ballesteros' current exempt status will expire when he falls out of the top 40 of his tour's career money list. Barring a golfing miracle, that will happen in this decade.
It is difficult to imagine European golf without Severiano Ballesteros. For all his petulance and gamesmanship, he was always a player you couldn't take your eyes off of when he was in your field of vision. Now you want to avert your eyes.

Maybe it is better to remember Ballesteros for the maestro he was than the train wreck he has become. But you can't help but wonder what will become of Ballesteros if he loses the stage that has been his life.