Ballesteros takes a five-month tee break

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reports from Co Kildare

Seve Ballesteros yesterday announced that he is to take an extended break from tournament golf. Whether it is a sabbatical or the beginning of the end remains to be seen. The Spaniard said he intends to resume his remarkable career next March, a month short of his 39th birthday.

"I have been a professional for more than 20 years," Ballesteros said. "Everyone knows how much I love the game and my passion for competition and I know this mid-career break will be good for my golf." The sad fact is, he knows nothing of the kind.

Ballesteros, the most charismatic player in Europe, has taken breaks before but nothing as dramatic or prolonged as this hiatus. Only two weeks ago he was emphasising the need for more competition, not less. During the British Masters at Collingtree, he said: "You've got to compete, to pick up the pace."

Ballesteros has been plagued by back trouble and last season he spent eight weeks in Arizona working on his fitness. It seemed to work. Forty- second in the Order of Merit in 1993 he was third last year when he took his career earnings past the pounds 4m mark.

This season he has played in only 11 events in Europe, winning the Perrier Fourball in Paris with Jose-Maria Olazabal in April and the Spanish Open the following month. That was his 71st, and last, tournament victory. His last major triumph came in the Open seven years ago.

Last week Ballesteros played three games in the Ryder Cup against the United States in Rochester, winning one of the fourballs with David Gilford.

"I hit only three fairways all week," he said. "I cleaned all the rough and all the branches on the course. The members of Oak Hill are not going to lose golf balls any more."

Despite his negligible contribution in terms of points, the presence of Ballesteros helped to inspire Europe and he was quite overcome with emotion. When he lifted Nick Faldo off his feet in an embrace by the 18th green he probably exacerbated his dodgy back.

"In the coming months I will rest and spend more time with my family," Ballesteros said. "I wouldn't want anyone to think this decision has anything to do with an early retirement. It is quite the opposite.

"The rest will enable me to take enough fresh air and resume my career in the best possible frame of mind.

"I have set targets throughout my career. I have fulfilled many of my ambitions. Now my intention is to play until I'm 54. This will be a good age to stop playing, more than 35 years after becoming a professional." As Lennon and McCartney might have put it, will they still be sending him a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

Meanwhile, in the Smurfit European Open here at the salubrious K Club, the K, certainly as far as the local hero Philip Walton is concerned, stands for knackered. He shot 78 in the first round, six over par. "All I wanted to do was get off the golf course," the Dubliner said. "I feel exhausted. I'm not really there."

Walton won the point in the singles in Rochester that guaranteed Europe's Ryder Cup victory. One up with one to play against Jay Haas, a five proved good enough.

The difference between success and failure was measured in inches or even fractions of inches although yesterday Walton revealed that in his case it was feet. Before playing his third shot at the 18th out of Oak Hill's deep rough he admitted that he nearly stepped on his ball. "It was not a nice experience," he said.

They say they play the Ryder Cup just for the glory but Walton did not come away empty-handed. He bet pounds 1,000 on Europe at 5-2.

The K Club, designed by Arnold Palmer, is a formidable test and although the vast majority of the field were over par, most of the Oak Hill gang did reasonably well, Costantino Rocca, with a 69, the best of them. He is two behind the joint leaders, Carl Mason and Barry Lane.

Sam Torrance, who three-putted on three occasions in a one-over-par 73, is still waiting to hear from IMG whether he will receive a place in the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth in two weeks' time.

Torrance, an ex-IMG man, could replace Ballesteros in the 12-man field. As the Order of Merit leader, the Scotsman did get one call on his mobile yesterday - an invitation to play in the $1m (pounds 650,000) Challenge in Sun City in December.

Scores, Sporting Digest,

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