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Ballesteros: A star abroad but under appreciated at home

September 15, 1997

SOTOGRANDE, Spain (AP) _ Seve Ballesteros popularized golf in Europe the way Arnold Palmer did a generation earlier in the United States.

But ask the average Spaniard to name the country’s top 10 sports figures and the European Ryder Cup captain might be left off the list.

That fact grates on the fiercely proud, intensely private, sometimes brash Spaniard, who has mastered a game that _ until recently _ wasn’t followed much at home.

Ballesteros isn’t shy about saying he almost single-handedly landed the Ryder Cup for Spain, his reward for spreading golf across Europe by winning three British Opens, two Masters and leading Europe to respectability in the Cup.

Off the course, he overcame modest roots around Santander in northern Spain to marry Carmen Botin, the daughter of Emilio Botin, the president of the Bank of Santander and one of the richest men in the country.

Still, he is far from the most popular athlete in Spain.

``He’d be on most lists, but he wouldn’t be on the top,″ said Raul Andreu, an editor at the sports daily El Mundo Deportivo. ``Some of it’s his fault, and some is just his nature.″

Heading any Spaniard’s list would be Miguel Indurain, the five-time winner of cycling’s Tour de France, Real Madrid soccer striker Raul Gonzalez, or former Olympic gold medalist at 1,500 meters Fermin Cacho.

``In English you might say he has a little chip on his shoulder,″ said Jeff Kelly, a 28-year Spanish resident and publisher of the magazine ``Andalusia Golf.″

``Every time he gets a chance in Spain he must feel like he needs to talk about his accomplishments that aren’t always recognized here, and that seems to make it worse.″

Ballesteros knows he’s underappreciated at home.

``It is I who have brought the Ryder cup here (to Spain),″ Ballesteros said in his biography ``Seve.″ ``When we got the cup in Spain nobody called me, nobody congratulated me and nobody asked me for my opinion. It is very possible that if I hadn’t played the 1983 match, the Ryder Cup would not be what it is now.″

Ballesteros is immensely popular among the country’s 110,000 golfers. Spain has only about 200 courses, but it had half that many 15 years ago, before Ballesteros came along.

Ballesteros is renown for his competitiveness. But it’s the Ryder Cup where the uncanny shotmaker has earned his greatest fame; and off the course, slight infamy.

The most recent incident came earlier this month when fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Martin was dropped from this year’s team. Martin, who had wrist surgery in August, wanted to wait until a week before the Ryder matches to see if he could play. Instead, he was dropped three weeks before and replaced with a more famous Spaniard _ Jose Maria Olazabal.

Martin criticized Ballesteros, threatening to go to court to win back his spot. Ballesteros responded by calling the largely unknown Martin ``that little man.″

Ballesteros also had a head-to-head with Valderrama _ the venue for the Ryder Cup _ and its billionaire owner Jaime Ortiz-Patino. Ballesteros’ choice for the Ryder was Novo Sancti Petri, a course near Cadiz in southern Spain that he designed.

Ten days before Valderrama was named in May 1994 as the site, Ballesteros accused Ortiz-Patino of offering him $1 million to back his bid.

Asked if he thought it was a bribe, Ballesteros said, ``I just don’t like to be bought _ I have my principles.″

Ryder Cup committee member David Huish was widely quoted as wanting to punch Ballesteros for his comments.

``He’s a very determined, tough person,″ Andreu said. ``That has worked in his favor, but a few times it hasn’t.″

Ballesteros and Olazabal, the 1994 Masters champion, are both from northern Spain and not particularly out-going personalities.

``Neither Olazabal or Ballesteros have done enough to promote the game here, they’re not like that. They are private people,″ Andreu said. ``We’re now seeing growth in golf because Spain’s provinces have realized there’s tourist money in it.″

A course under construction nearer Barcelona _ Caldes de Malavella _ may wind up as Spain’s next Ryder Cup venue if the matches return here.

``The Ryder Cup has pushed a golf boom and it’s not seen to be quite as elitist as it was,″ Andreu said. ``It will be interesting now to see if the growth continues when the Ryder Cup ends.″

End Adv for weekend editions, Sept. 20-21

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