Golf: Nicklaus maps out recovery course: Mark Burton sees an old master offer the troubled Ballesteros advice at the opening of the London Golf Club

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The Independent Online
TWICE holing out from greenside bunkers is hardly enough to justify announcing Seve Ballesteros' imminent return to former glory. But then, as he said yesterday, one shot can make all the difference to a golfer.

The Spaniard, in Kent to mark the official opening of an impressive golf club, talked again of hard times, the slog he has endured over the past three years to restore his game and his confidence.

Victory at St Mellion earlier this season hinted that he had broken the back of his problems; a burst of the old Seve yesterday suggested that with the Open Championship only days away it might be time start start thinking in terms of great expectations.

'My game is getting a little better,' he said in the impressive surroundings of the clubhouse at the London Golf Club. 'It is not as good as it used to be, it never will be, but it is getting better little by little. I don't enjoy it as much as I did four or five years ago, because I'm not playing so well.'

It did not show yesterday. If the ability to make the trickiest shot appear easy is a part greatness, then the Spaniard should be thinking in terms of adding to his five majors, if not this week, then soon enough.

A game for charity on a bright and breezy day is hardly comparable to the Open, but that mattered little to the 4,000 to 5,000 spectators who pressed for a view of their idols. They were rewarded handsomely as first Jack Nicklaus, inaugurating the new Heritage course that he designed, dominated the pounds 1,000-a-hole game and then Ballesteros took command on the back nine.

His first chip-in kept alive a run of halved holes. His second perfect pitch from a bunker at the 15th ended that sequence and that enabled him to clean up.

Nicklaus, also heading for Turnberry this week, had his own problems at one stage in his career, understands what Ballesteros is going through and had plenty of encouraging words for him. Family pressures, Nicklaus thought, were at the root of the Spaniard's troubles, and he remembered how difficult it had been for him when his children were young to leave them behind constantly to play tournaments.

'He'll get his energy back,' Nicklaus said. 'At his age, I don't think he's going to disappear.'

The Golden Bear faces a few decisions, too. His, at 54, is the inevitable one of age, and simply not being able to play the way he used to is presenting him with a gradually more pressing question. 'Sometimes I think I can play a decent game; sometimes I'm struggling,' he eplained.

His problems come off the tee. 'As my driver goes, so my game goes,' he said. 'I used to overpower a course, take bunkers out of play. I can't do that any more. I'm not sure how long I want to play that way.'

Nicklaus, with 20 majors to his name, is going to Turnberry and will be back for the Open at St Andrews next year, but further appearances in the US Open depend on getting exemptions. He intends to tail off his tournament play, but will compete on the senior tour.

That is precisely where Tony Jacklin, the former Ryder Cup captain who made up yesterday's three-ball, is heading. He drove from Kent to Heathrow straight after the game to fly to Chicago to prepare for his debut among the seniors. He will return to play the British Seniors Open at Lytham next week.

For him the problem is not how or whether to wind things down. Rather the opposite. Yesterday was his first appearance before a gallery in many months.

'I'm obviously having to find out what I've got to do to get back into competition,' said the former Open and US Open champion, who has spent the past seven months retuning his game in Florida. 'There's work to be done, but it's mostly getting used to the crowd and the atmosphere again.'

Yesterday's reintroduction to crowds was probably as gentle as he could have had. Few seemed to expect much from him but his fine shots, and there were plenty of them, drew enthusiastic applause. However, with the other two on their game he often had the look of a wedding guest who could never find a way into the photographs.

'I felt as if I was making up the numbers, which is not a good feeling,' Jacklin admitted after failing to win a hole.

Then again with the sun making the competition even hotter, it was a skins game in which someone was going to get burned.