A spring in Seve's step

Peter Corrigan studies the challenge facing a golfer in the autumn of his career
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The Independent Online
ANYONE waiting patiently for the spring blossom to re-appear on a favourite old tree will understand the hopeful fascination with which Seve Ballesteros will be watched by his admirers this week when he grounds his club on British soil for the first time this year. He won't be the only gnarled trunk in search of the rising sap in the Benson and Hedges International Open at Cornwall's St Mellion course but as defending champion he will at least start as the centre of attraction.

For a man in the autumn of his achievements, Ballesteros has developed an eager response to springtime. It was at this tournament a year ago that he brought to an end the worst period of a professional career that stretches back 22 years. His victory was his first on the Tour for 26 months and began a comeback he sustained throughout 1994.

The resurgence did not reach as far as another major championship but it took him to third place in the Order of Merit and to top of the Ryder Cup qualification table. This year has started slowly. He has played in only two Tour events and finished at the back of the field in the US Masters but the zest came back last weekend when he won the Tournoi Perrier de Paris with his partner Jose Maria Olazabal who he faces this week on individual terms.

A month ago Ballesteros announced a split with his bright and personable caddie Billy Foster with whom he has shared the past five years. No convincing reason was given but such inexplicable fractures occur regularly in golf. Some players would change their parents if they thought it would help.

Apart from the Ballesteros challenge, the event itself deserves to command our notice on its own merit, representing as it does the arrival of the 1995 European Tour to what we still consider its homeland. Sixteen weeks and three continents after it began in January, the Tour alights back among its roots and its journey via Arabia, the Phillipines, South Africa, north Africa, Madeira, the Canaries, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy has delayed its arrival by a week longer than usual.

This is not the fault of the Tour but as at the request of the sponsors who had suffered a sequence of inhospitable Cornish weather. Players, Nick Faldo among them, complained that it was too early to play in Britain, even in the milder South-west. Thus, this year's event is being staged a week later; a step that has co-incided with some appalling weather in supposedly sunnier climes. Tournaments have been interrupted by gales, mists and downpours and three weeks ago rain reduced the Cannes Open to 36 holes.

Whatever weather greets the competitors on Thursday, it is not dismissive of the action that has gone before to say that this is where the story really starts; when the prize money suddenly takes a rapid escalation to double that of previous weeks, the big names are prepared to jostle with the journeymen and the media coverage broadens.

The media coverage, on this occasion, includes the BBC and we have the sponsors to thank for that. When the Tour did its deal with BSkyB last year, this was one of the tournaments earmarked for transfer to the satellite channel. Benson and Hedges would not agree. When their one-day cricket tournament was moved to Sky they saw their audience reduced from millions to thousands and they refused to run the same risk with golf.

Therefore the tournament will be on general release, beginning with a 4.30 to 6 pm slot on BBC2 on Thursday. Unfortunately, Nick Faldo will not be on view. He is still on R and R after the first flush of his new assault on the American circuit and he is not coming out to play until the Volvo PGA at Wentworth in two weeks' time. Ian Woosnam is another absentee which leaves the form-forlorn Sandy Lyle as the only British major title-holder left to defend this title against the formidable challenge of Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Olazabal.

Colin Montgomerie, leading European money-winner for the past two years, heads a home guard capable of improving on a poor start to the year, but we do not have a good record at the tough St Mellion course which is more typical of designer Jack Nicklaus's draconian ideas than it is of a British course.

Since the event was transfered from Fulford six years ago, only Paul Broadhurst has registered a home win and with only four British players in the top 10 of the Ryder Cup points table there is every incentive for budding hopes like Scotland's Andrew Coltart and Adam Hunter to disturb the rustle of Seve's spring.