Golf: Long trek for Ballesteros and Nicklaus: Two of the game's greatest players get to grips with a difficult course

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The Independent Online
SEVE'S back] Jack's back] Not so much a return to past glories, more a medical seminar on two of the most troublesome lumbar regions in golf. As dodgy backs go this was a double whammy but while comparing prescriptions yesterday Ballesteros and Nicklaus safely negotiated their way around Montecastillo in the first round of the Turespana Masters here.

Ballesteros shot 70, two under par, which, considering his wretched form last year, represented a welcome return to respectability; Nicklaus shot 69, which, considering his age, was a splendid effort. Still, the Olden Bear (he is 54) has a more intimate knowledge of Montecastillo than anybody else in the tournament. Jack designed the course and yesterday the management confirmed that Montecastillo is throwing its hat into the ring in a bid to stage the Ryder Cup in 1997.

Ballesteros, who is promoting a rival course, his own design at Nova Sancti Petri near Cadiz, acknowledged the work Nicklaus has done here but Montecastillo, a sort of St Mellion with a dash of sherry, is not flawless. Nicklaus admits there is more work to be done on the course but its biggest handicap is the undulating terrain.

The three-ball of Ballesteros, Nicklaus and Miguel Angel Jimenez went round in four and three-quarter hours. 'I feel like I've played 24 holes,' Ballesteros said, which was not a back- handed compliment to the course designer. It's a long trek in any case at 7,024 yards, but when the distances between greens and tees are taken into account it measures nearer 10,000 yards. Some of the walks between holes are as long as 200 yards. This is because of the construction of houses on the course.

The optimum time to play 18 holes in a European Tour event is 4hr 11min and officials here say that 4hr 25min is tolerable because of the yomping involved. Ballesteros and Nicklaus must have been given an extra special dispensation. They did, of course, attract the majority of spectators.

Between them, Ballesteros (5) and Nicklaus (18) have won 23 major championships and but for the fact that both of them have had back trouble since they were teenagers the figures would be higher. Between shots they talked a lot.

'We talked about kids, about his golf course, about my golf course,' Nicklaus said. 'The things that anybody talks about.' With due respect, Jack, not anybody has 106 courses to his name. They also talked about golf in the Olympic Games (in favour of) and the health of Paul Azinger, who has a cancer of the shoulder.

Both played well enough to have featured more prominently on the leaderboard. Ballesteros, playing only his third round of the year after two months of intensive exercise in Arizona, dropped strokes at the sixth and eighth, taking three putts at each, but had an eagle three at the 16th. 'I was very pleased,' he said. 'I played consistent. There was a little bit of doubt. It wasn't easy to have confidence.'

The Spaniard and the American were in sympathy. 'I admire his concentration,' Seve said of Jack. 'He's been the best under pressure over the last 20 years. I would not be surprised if he won a major this year.' Jack said of Seve: 'In my opinion he'll win a lot more tournaments. He's going to be fine. He's 36, isn't he? He'll be at his peak. What I admire most about him is that he's a fierce competitor and he has the ability to make shots happen when he needs them.'

Nicklaus, who had 34 putts yesterday, missed only two greens in regulation. He would not be terribly surprised if he won another big one. 'My goals have always been to win majors,' he said. 'When I was younger if I played well I'd win. If I played fairly well I'd have a chance. Now I have to play well to have a chance. Jack Nicklaus used to be up for them every week. The odds get slimmer as I get older but given the right week I'm still capable of winning in any place on any tour. I've had 37 years of great golf and I'm very happy about that. I still have the ability to play. I love running with the kids.'

His kids, incidentally, are having trouble keeping up. Gary Nicklaus shot 72, Jackie 75. No side bets involved. 'Family pride's enough,' the old man said.

Scores, Sporting Digest, page 39

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