Golf: Ballesteros bewildered by failure: John Hopkins reports on the Spanish buccaneer becalmed in golf's doldrums after a confidence-snapping season of setbacks

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IN Jamaica before Christmas you could have watched Brad Faxon swinging one-handed on the practice ground, Sandy Lyle dancing to a song performed by a woman who sang better than Whitney Houston, and Greg Norman whacking a three-wood 310 yards. If he had hit his driver, he would have been off the island.

If you looked carefully you might have spotted Seve Ballesteros's older child, Baldomero, waddling around the putting green scooping up balls and creating mischief. Meanwhile, his father was running up a remarkable double-figure score on one hole.

Ballesteros, who was at sixes and sevens with his game all week, took a 10 on the 10th hole of his second round in the Johnnie Walker World Championship. He lost a ball off the tee, which was not difficult to do at Tryall. Then he took five putts from 12 feet on the green, his fifth being no more than two inches.

It summed up his year. It may have been a glorious one for Spain but it was wretched one for Ballesteros. He missed four cuts in the 15 tournaments he entered in Europe, including the Open at Muirfield, and in the US Masters and the US Open he plummeted down the field in the fourth round, taking an 81 at Augusta and a 79 at Pebble Beach. In Jamaica, Ballesteros's rounds of 76, 82, 73 and 75 left him last, for the first time in his career.

Again and again this year one has been reminded of a remark made by a friend of his: 'What is wrong with Seve? The club he needs in his bag is a compass.'

On current form Ballesteros has no chance of qualifying for next year's Ryder Cup at The Belfry. If he does not earn his place on merit, he says he will do as Sandy Lyle did in 1989 and decline to be considered. 'If I do not qualify I do not want to be selected,' he said in Jamaica.

A Ryder Cup without Ballesteros, one without his tactical nous, his ability to take gamesmanship to the limit, to force Paul Azinger's blood pressure up to boiling point? Surely such a thing is inconceivable? Not only has Ballesteros raised his game in recent Ryder Cups; he inspires those around him.

At Muirfield Village in 1987 he kept bouncing around the team's headquarters saying: 'We can win, we will win.' Europe duly did - for the first time in the US. Two years later he approached Christy O'Connor on the morning of the singles and looked his team-mate in the eye. 'You will win today,' Ballesteros said, without even bothering to enquire about the name of O'Connor's opponent. As we all now know, O'Connor did just that.

At Tryall, Ballesteros cut a sorry figure on the course and when the talk turned to his own golf his countenance clouded over and his voice sounded weary. 'I don't want to talk about my golf much next season,' he said. 'In the future if I have a good score then you can assume I am playing well. If I have a bad score, I am playing badly.'

Ballesteros is completely mixed up. One minute he said: 'I know what is wrong with me but I do not want to talk about it.' Then almost without drawing breath he went on to say: 'I don't know what is wrong with me. It is very tough for me. Everybody is asking me what is wrong'

Ballesteros spent some time on the practice ground with David Leadbetter, Nick Faldo's coach and the most influential teacher in golf today. 'Seve is so low in confidence,' Leadbetter said. 'He's a feel player and the trouble with feel players is they don't know what is right and wrong. They play by instinct and hope they can get out of it.

'But it may be that what they are doing is wrong. Seve is swinging as he was at 20, relying on his hands and arms to control the club. That is not enough. He needs to use the big muscles more than the small ones.'

Faldo believes that Ballesteros's swing must be changed because it is the swing of a young man. Ballesteros, who will be 36 in April and has been playing golf since he was seven, is anything but that. Faldo says Ballesteros's leg action is excessive, forcing him to contort himself, which is putting extra strain on his back.

When he was away from the course, however, Ballesteros seemed entirely content. His wife Carmen and their younger child and an au pair were with him and he was easy to speak to. At the closing party a journalist remarked to Carmen about her husband's haircut. She looked baffled. 'It looks rather severe,' the journalist explained. 'You should have seen it two months ago,' Ballesteros said.

Golf needs Ballesteros. At his most buccaneering, he turns the game into a carnival. His name used to be synonymous with dashing golf, heroic recoveries, acts of legerdemain that few other golfers were capable of. A three-wood hit 240 yards from a bunker in the 1983 Ryder Cup is the greatest stroke this reporter has ever seen.

Ballesteros once confounded Jack Nicklaus by repeatedly exploding from a bunker at Augusta with a three-iron. 'Here, Jack,' he said to the American. 'Here, you try.' Nicklaus did so and failed, missing the ball completely a couple of times before walking away in embarrassment.

In a recent issue of Golf World, Faldo spoke warmly of Ballesteros. 'I think his charisma and style of play have been fantastic for our tour and for golf in general . . . Unfortunately, we are total opposites. If I hit three drives into the woods, I would think: 'It's gone. There's my game gone. End of the world.' He does all that and it is all part of it. So we are totally, totally different in that respect. I think the way he plays is quite unbelievable.'

Faldo went on to criticise Jose- Maria Olazabal's swing and called Olazabal's grip 'mega- weak'. Ballesteros spoke out on behalf of his countryman. 'I prefer Chema's (the Spanish diminutive for Jose-Maria) swing to Faldo's. Time will prove me right. I don't feel any admiration and envy for Nick's record. I've had more moments of glory than him.'

But not in Jamaica. While Faldo earned pounds 350,000 from his sixth victory of the year, Ballesteros took home less than a 10th as much.

One last cameo from the Caribbean. Baldomero was up to some more mischief and a friend remarked to Seve: 'Your son seems very happy.' Ballesteros smiled ruefully. 'It's too bad adults can't be as happy as children,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)