Former champions plugged in fate's bunker

COUNTDOWN TO THE OPEN: Seve Ballesteros and Ian Baker-Finch are on losing streaks. Tim Glover reports
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The Independent Online
They are still in demand although you would not put your mortgage on either of them hitting a fairway. Seve Ballesteros played in an exhibition match against Paul Azinger over the Old Course yesterday and Ian Baker- Finch completed a three-ball with Prince Andrew and Gavin Hastings to mark the opening of the Duke's course, the first championship lay-out to have been built inland at St Andrews.

Ballesteros shot 74 and was beaten; the good news for Baker-Finch is that he was not shown up by two men who can play a bit. What the Spaniard and the Australian have in common is that they have both embraced the old silver claret jug and both are currently performing as if they have drunk from a poisoned chalice.

"If you want to be remembered you have to win at St Andrews," Jack Nicklaus once remarked. Ballesteros, of course, won here in 1984. Nicklaus might have added that if you want to be forgotten win at Royal Birkdale, as Baker-Finch did in 1991. Since then he has shown the classic symptoms of a major champion flourishing off the course while forgetting how to win.

Except that in Baker-Finch's case the rise and fall has been so dramatic as to bring on a nose- bleed. Last year he played in 35 tournaments and missed the half-way cut in 24 of them; this season he has a 100 per cent record. He has missed every cut. With such a record at least he has saved on hotel bills.

"Look," he said, holding out the palms of his hands. "No scar marks. I haven't slashed my wrists. Last year I said that if my bad form continued I'd walk away from the game but I can't do that. It has got me down but I can't give up. People talk about Nick Price going through a slump but they don't know the meaning of the word. I'm at the bottom of a pit.

"I've had 25 different coaches and it feels like I've had 25 different swings. I want to trust my swing like I used to. My form has been so poor that it has gone beyond a question of luck. I'm working on simple thoughts, my own thoughts. The genie inside that I was blessed with didn't go away. It's still in there."

Baker-Finch was ninth here in 1984, his first major, and sixth in 1990. "I'm trying to draw from my positive experiences at St Andrews," he said. "I'm hoping my desire to do well here will get me through." In the game with Prince Andrew and Gavin Hastings, Baker-Finch hit the driver twice. "They were beautiful shots," he said. "It's another little step forward."

Ballesteros has missed the cut in his last four tournaments and if the problems for Baker-Finch are predominantly in his head, the Spaniard's decline is compounded by injuries to his back and foot. Revisiting the 18th here has been almost therapeutic for Ballesteros.

"I was with my wife and boys and suddenly 1984 was like yesterday. I believe it was my greatest week. Coming to St Andrews, holing the putt on the last hole and beating one of the best players of all time in Tom Watson, it was very special."

At 38 Ballesteros is becoming positively philosophical. "I am going through one of those downs. Life is full of ups and downs. It is not terrible as long as it has only affected my game. As long as I can feel happy and my family is happy it is not such a serious problem. We all have to look at other people, at how many difficulties they have as they go through life."

That's as maybe, but such was his mood during the Scottish Open at Carnoustie last week when he failed to break 80 that the staff at his hotel were relieved when he checked out. "Just being here I feel happy," Ballesteros said. "Golf is not everything. It means a lot to me but it is not everything. Everything I have is thanks to the game but sometimes I feel I don't want to play."

If this was any other tournament than the Open Championship, Ballesteros would be back home in Pedrena, probably watching a video of his triumph here 11 years ago. As it is last night he watched a film of a match he played at Woburn in 1981 with Greg Norman, Sally Little and Nancy Lopez. For some reason, David Morris, Gary Player's caddie, thought it would be of benefit.

"He gave me the video and told me I might pick out some things from it. It's nice to see so many people trying to help me. They know I am going through a difficult time." The trouble is, people have also tried to help Baker-Finch and look what happened to him. It is possible to believe that once the genie is out it is devilishly difficult to entice him back into the bag.