Ballesteros up to his old tricks

Andy Farrell watches a golfing legend trying to recapture his former glory
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This is the 60th US Masters and the 10th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' record sixth victory. It is, therefore, just under 10 years and a week since a friend of the Golden Bear cut out an article in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution and taped it to the fridge door in the house the Nicklaus clan rented for the week.

Tom McCollister, the paper's golf correspondent, had written: "Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's rusted from lack of use. He's 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.''

Nicklaus shot seven under for the last 10 holes, brilliant even by his standards, and has never let McCollister forget it. "Thanks, Tom," the Bear said as McCollister walked into the victory press conference. "Glad I could help," came the reply.

In 1996, Seve Ballesteros, seven years younger than Nicklaus was then, would need an industrial-sized freezer to stick up all the articles writing off the 1980 and '83 Masters champion. "Clueless," screamed a headline in Sports Illustrated.

An American golf magazine coupled Ballesteros with Nicklaus in a category of those needing miracles to win this week, saying: "Can't find the fairway with three marshals and a seeing-eye dog."

Then on Tuesday, the Spaniard's 39th birthday, USA Today told its readers not to watch Ballesteros play. "If you have fond memories of this swashbuckling Spaniard manufacturing shots from car parks, trees, bushes and brambles all over the world, don't watch him this week. If you had the feeling he would make no worse than par no matter what the circumstances, the curtain is drawn on that show.''

Two missed cuts, a last place finish, and a back injury induced withdrawal was not the way Ballesteros would have wished to have entered his 20th Masters. But there were plenty who ignored the "don't watch" advice yesterday morning. As he was among the dew-sweepers in the eighth two-ball of the morning, there were too many others to observe. Presumably, though, they were not there to see his playing partner, Jeff Maggert, the US tour's answer to David Gilford.

It was a beautiful Georgian morning, with no hint of the frost of the previous day when walking on the grass was prohibited. "It turns the grass yellow and that won't look good on television," said the security guard. Twenty four hours later, Ballesteros did his best to oblige by finding bunkers off the first two tees.

On the front nine, he was in five bunkers and failed to get up and down from greenside sand at the fourth and seventh. But only once was he in the trees, earlier at the seventh. When the recovery did not materialise, the unthinkable was thought: perhaps it was time to leave the great one and catch a glimpse of the early pacesetter., the Crewe Cowboy.

Perseverance paid off at the par-five 15th. His four-wood second shot went left, hit the wall of Sarazen's bridge that spans the pond in front of the green and bounced into a kind position from which he could chip and putt for a birdie. "It was a good break," he said. "As you know, I am always lucky.''

The genuine Ballesteros recovery finally arrived at the last, where he was in the trees on the right. "What are we going to do now?" said a worried Martin Gray, his relatively new caddie. "No problem," Ballesteros told him. He promptly hooked the ball round and over the two trees in front of him, and it came off the bank on the right to finish just off the green, 15 feet from the flag. Of course, then he almost chipped in for a birdie that would have got him back to level par.

"It was a great shot," said the smiling Spaniard. "I had to clear a small tree in front of me, and a bigger one a bit further away. And also move it 45 degrees from right-to left. I almost holed the chip. It would have been a good way to finish.'' A one-over 73 in only his ninth full round of the year, while he is still getting used to his new Cobra clubs, and with a throat infection, was a good start.

"I played a little better today," Ballesteros said. "It was steady, but not exciting. My tempo was better." Can he win, like Nicklaus 10 years ago? Not even Seve is expecting that, but he is worth watching for a few years yet.