Ballesteros is rough but ready

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reports from Agadir, Morocco

It was as if he had never been away. Seve Ballesteros stood on the first tee at Royal Dar es Salaam and hooked his drive into the cork trees. The ball barely went further than 50 yards. His partner, Sam Torrance, tried to reassure him. "No problemo," the Scotsman said in his best Spanish accent. The corks were popping and it had nothing to do with champagne.

Ballesteros' second shot also careered into the trees, depositing more woodwork on the course. Clearly there was a big problemo but as the match progressed the Spanish-Scottish alliance prospered. It is, of course, too early to say if a five-month sabbatical has cured Ballesteros' wayward tendencies but as comebacks go it was not the most promising beginning.

Minutes earlier Ballesteros had explained that he took a prolonged break from the game because "I was hitting the ball all over the place." He left golf after Europe's victory in the Ryder Cup last September. "I knew I was going to play badly and I was mentally prepared for that," he said. "I wasn't enjoying the game and I didn't feel it was good for me to continue."

Ballesteros, who turns 39 next month, is Europe's new Ryder Cup captain and he maintains he would like to play in the next match at Valderrama in 18 months. Yesterday he was Europe's playing captain in the Sahara Cup, a 10-man contest against a team from Africa.

The match was a pipe-opener to the Moroccan Open which starts today and Ballesteros was accompanied by seven of his Ryder Cup colleagues. At least the occasion provided him with a foretaste of matchplay management. Torrance's request to partner Ian Woosnam was denied. Instead Ballesteros teamed up with Torrance and Woosnam with Costantino Rocca.

David Gilford and Philip Walton were paired on the grounds that "they don't talk very much." This clearly had been a painstaking exercise in the finer points of tactical awareness. Not really. "I thought about it for 10 minutes on the plane," Ballesteros said. He has had five months to consider wider issues, like his future. "Am I serious?" he responded to a question about resurrecting his playing career. "I've been serious for the last 20 years. Why should I stop? It's the only thing I can do."

From September to January he did not touch a club. "I've been doing things that I haven't had a chance to do in the previous 20 years," Ballesteros said. Instead of going to Barcelona airport he went to the cinema and he did not eat popcorn or chocolates. He has lost nearly a stone in weight.

"I've enjoyed being with my family although it's been difficult getting up in the morning and having nothing to do. This has given me a better understanding of people who are at home without a job, who don't know what to do with their time and, in addition, are not earning money to take home for the family"

Once the leading player in the world, Ballesteros has dropped to 25th in the rankings. His entry for the Open Championship at Royal Lytham in July was the first to be received by the Royal and Ancient. He won the Open on the Lancashire links in 1979 and again in 1988. "Things are not going to be very easy," he said. "You will have to be patient. My confidence is not very good and it's going to take a while before I feel normal. My lack of competition will show up. If I enjoy myself it means I am playing well and if I am playing well I win."

Ballesteros last played in Rabat 19 years ago. "I was a little better then," he said. As for the Sahara Cup, Europe won 3-2, Ballesteros and Torrance contributing a point by defeating Ian Palmer and Roger Wessels with a 66 to a 68. It was as if the Spaniard had never been away.