Seve Ballesteros was in the middle of his round during the L. A. Open's pro-am event in February when Dave Berganio could no longer keep his curiosity bottled.
Berganio, a 19-year-old senior at Alemany High, was caddying for baseball Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks, but his attention focused solely on Ballesteros, the mercurial Spaniard considered by some, Berganio included, to be the best golfer on the planet.
After Ballesteros' tee shot on Riviera's fourth hole, Berganio--who is considered by some, himself included, to be the best high school golfer in Southern California--turned to Seve and blurted, "Were you rich when you were a kid?"
Seve responded, "Huh?"
There are reasons and a story behind Berganio's seemingly odd question. Even though he has won 20 junior tournaments since being introduced to golf five years ago, Berganio never has felt altogether at home in the opulent--often profuse--country club environment that surrounds the game. Unlike many promising young golfers, he wasn't raised in the shadow of Augusta or La Quinta or Cypress Point. He grew up in a Pacoima ghetto.
While other juniors dress out in splendid golf shirts and $120 slacks, Berganio prefers to wear a white T-shirt. In his childhood neighborhood, he would have been caught dead wearing a pair of plus fours.
To this day, Berganio, who is one-quarter Philippine and three-quarters Mexican, feeds off an angry attitude toward the poshness of golf.
"I like to prove to people you don't have to have money to be good," he said. "A lot of kids at country clubs drive BMWs. I drive a hand-me-down Toyota, but my day will come."
Berganio's unlikely story of poverty to pardom began when he was introduced to golf by Father George Miller, a Catholic priest at Guardian Angel Church in Pacoima, who was searching for diversions to keep the eighth-grader off the street.
"He was a kid of the streets," said Miller, now a priest at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard. "Guardian Angel is located right in the projects and David lived nearby. He was a hard, stubborn kid. But he was a gifted athlete, so I wondered if he'd respond to golf. I thought it might lead him to good things."
A stroke of inspiration, as it turned out. Golf captivated Berganio's soul without frazzling his wits.
He almost made a home of El Cariso Golf Course in Sylmar, where he earned practice time on the driving range by picking up buckets of balls. After two months, Bob Husband, then-owner of the pro shop at El Cariso, offered him free lessons. Less than a year later, Berganio won the L. A. City Boys' Championship at age 14. He then won the Santa Barbara Junior Open, qualified for a national junior tournament in Springfield, Ohio, where he finished in the top 20 and was named a member of a Hogan Cup junior team that included the top five juniors in Southern California in 1986. He has been runner-up in the Southern Section tournament twice and finished third once. In addition, Berganio has won the Del Rey League championship three consecutive years and will defend the title May 1 at Griffith Park.
"He's just a superior talent," Husband said. "It's amazing the way he's been able to assimilate knowledge in such a short period of time."
Transforming from a novice to a scratch golfer in less than a year is simply not comprehendible to the average slam-shanking golf enthusiast. Not even Berganio himself can completely explain his knack for this most frustrating of sports.
"Golf is a mind game," he said, "and I have the right attitude."
But Berganio's aggressive nature isn't exclusively reserved for the golf course--he's a three-year varsity player for Alemany's basketball team and averaged 16 points a game this season as a point guard. Joe Anlauf, who coaches both the basketball and golf teams, says Berganio has a better touch on the course than on the court.
And it is golf that at once stirs passion within Berganio and most likely offers him a brighter future. He currently awaits a scholarship offer from USC that he says "may or may not" come. "If it doesn't, it will be because of my grades, not my golf."
Hitting greens has been easier for Berganio than hitting the books. His grade-point average hovers just above 2.0 but has improved during his junior and senior years with the help of a tutor. If he doesn't make it to USC, other schools remain interested.
"If nothing else, I want golf to help me get a college education," he said.
But it's more complicated than that, really. A degree would be a fine accomplishment indeed, but Berganio is aiming at playing professional golf. Whether he's headed for the Golden State Tour--a mini-tour in California--or the PGA Tour remains a mystery. But his hard-boiled temperament and background, according to Husband, bode well for his future.
"When he first started playing golf," Husband said, "he took a lot of ridicule because the game wasn't accepted by the rougher groups of kids. Then he felt uncomfortable when playing golf around the wealthy kids. He was in the middle. Truth be known, he had a chip on his shoulder because he's had it harder than most. But because of that, he has more to prove. It's made him better."
Which brings us back to the question posed by Berganio to Ballesteros on the fourth hole at Riviera.
The 19-year-old explained Ballesteros' answer this way: "Seve told me, 'No, no, my family was poor. I caddied to make money. But that doesn't matter. Just work hard and do whatever it takes and you'll be OK.' "
Ballesteros then handed Berganio a club and said, "Let me see your swing."
"Good swing, good swing," the two-time Masters champion said.
Looking back at that brief conversation--he considers it nothing less than a monumental moment in his life--Berganio half-smiles and says: "Just like Seve said, there's no substitute for hard work. No substitute. I'll never