Golf: Ballesteros bunkered in sands of time: Spain's golfing genius struggles to rediscover his old feeling for the game and drive out of a slump. Tim Glover reports

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The Independent Online
NICK FALDO and Seve Ballesteros have several things in common. Both celebrated their 35th birthday this year. Both have won five major championships, three Opens and two Masters apiece. Gill Faldo is pregnant, as is Carmen Ballesteros. Both players are currently on holiday. At this point the Englishman and the Spaniard part company.

This year Faldo has found Eldorado whereas Ballesteros appears to be playing a bit part in the soap opera version. Faldo is the undisputed world No 1, confirming his status with victory in the Open Championship and a joint second in the US PGA Championship. Ballesteros, after wretched closing rounds in the Masters and the US Open, missed the cut at Muirfield and, disconsolate and confused, withdrew from the US PGA.

'I have no feeling for the game,' he said. 'You could play better than me. I don't know what is wrong. When I lose confidence I begin to change things and I start looking for faults in my swing. I create a lot of confusion in my mind and every round is a mystery. When you get into that state you need a catalyst. Once you start making putts, for example, your confidence comes back and that affects the rest of your game. You win and that gives you more confidence. That's exactly what happened to me last year.'

This time it is different. Ballesteros retreated to his home in Pedrena in northern Spain to watch somewhat more successful Spaniards compete in the Olympics. His form is almost a reversal of what happened to him last season. Then he got off to a poor start but became virtually unstoppable, winning the European Order of Merit for a sixth time. He won the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Dunhill British Masters at Woburn and the World Match Play, again at Wentworth.

With visits to Japan, he played golf every day from December and arrived in Bangkok in January for the Johnnie Walker Asian Classic, the Tour's overture, complaining of a bad back. So bad he said he found it difficult to walk. He took a Thai course of treatment which left him with a series of circular burn marks on his back. They were the size of cricket balls and he looked as if he had spent a day facing Waqar Younis.

The following week Ballesteros won the Dubal Desert Classic in Dubai. It was his 50th victory in Europe, the 67th of his career. 'I've decided to play more golf in order to keep up with the competition,' he said. 'You've got to work harder to stay at the same level. Ten years ago there were about 15 players capable of winning. Now there are about 35.'

Ballesteros's desert classic made him, albeit temporarily, the leading money-winner in the history of the game. It also meant he has won an international tournament in each of the last 17 years, matching the records of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Only Gary Player has a longer streak. 'Winning in Dubai was the perfect start,' Ballesteros said at the time, 'and I don't see any reason why this shouldn't be a great year.'

When he returned to Wentworth to defend the Volvo PGA he missed the cut and his game has been so dreadful he has dropped to 21st in the Order of Merit, nearly pounds 350,000 behind Faldo. When Ballesteros was the world No 1 he set a record points average which Faldo is about to surpass. The most noticeable difference between the two is that Ballesteros won his five majors between 1979 and 1988, Faldo from 1987 to 1992.

The question is, are Ballesteros's buccaneering days over? When he was a rebel with a cause, fighting inequality on the European and US Tours, he had a cutlass between his teeth and his game had a burning intensity. He has subsequently married the daughter of the president of the Bank of Santander and has probably made enough money out of golf to buy his father-in-law out. Has age mellowed him and is Ballesteros ready instead for the Santander International piano competition?

The graph of his career has never been straightforward so the fact that it shows another downturn is not in itself particularly worrying. What is is that he cancelled his entry to a major tournament. Even worse, he consulted David Leadbetter. To see Ballesteros, who learned to develop tempo, rhythm and timing at the age of seven with a makeshift club on the beach at Pedrena, toiling under the tutelage of Leadbetter in Florida was a depressing sight.

You cannot teach touch, flair and inspiration, qualities which Ballesteros possessed naturally. What Leadbetter has done for Faldo, and others, has been rightly acknowledged. To a specification he rebuilt Faldo's swing and turned a winner into a world champion. That will not work for Ballesteros who had, has, one of the most elegant swings in golf. A prototype does not join a production line.

Joe Collet, Ballesteros's manager, denies suggestions that his employer is either physically unwell (apart from the dodgy back he has an allergy that leads to nose and throat infections) or that he has buckled under a top-heavy commercial workload. 'He's healthy, young and vigorous and has five or 10 years of great golf left in him,' Collet said. 'He has too much talent to hang it all up now. He's still the Arnold Palmer of Europe. I've got used to the highs and lows. With all Faldo's recent successes, Seve has still won more than twice as many tournaments. He's anxious to play again.'

Ballesteros was tempted to play in the Murphy's English Open which starts at The Belfry tomorrow. 'He was all for it,' Collet said, 'and then he thought about the baby.'

Collet on the ailing back: 'He's been to all the doctors in the world and what they're agreed upon is that he does not need surgery. He needs rest and proper therapy. It's normal wear and tear. As a young caddie he carried heavy bags and as a result one arm is longer than the other.' Collet on the deals: 'We have a different philosophy to others. We are not out there to chase every dollar.'

They focus on two main areas, golf equipment, for which Ballesteros has a worldwide licensing scheme through Dunlop and Slazenger, and clothes, with tie-ups with Hugo Boss, of Germany, and Sunderland, of Scotland. The Spaniard also sells his own line, principally in the Far East, then there is Rolex, golf course design and management (he wants the 1997 Ryder Cup to be held on a course he is designing in Madrid) and books and videos.

After taking his longest break, Ballesteros returns for the Canon European Masters in Switzerland next week (the first tournament that counts towards selection for next year's Ryder Cup at The Belfry) followed by the GA European Open at Sunningdale, the event which marks Faldo's reappearance. If this is not to go down as probably his worst season since his rookie year in 1974, Ballesteros has to win - and win soon.

BALLESTEROS' 1992

EUROPEAN TOUR RECORD

Johnny Walker Asian Classic (par: -8) 44th=

Dubai Desert Classic (-16) 1st

Turespana Masters (+2) 25th=

Balearic Open (-11) 1st

Peugeot Spanish Open (-3) 34th=

Volvo PGA Championship (+5) 110th=

Dunhill British Masters (-9) 17th=

Monte Carlo Open (-2) 27th=

Bell's Scottish Open (-3) 42nd=

The Open Championship (+3) 90th=

Scandinavian Masters (+4) 79th=

(Photograph omitted)

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