Golf: The art is fading for Seve: Robert Green at Sandwich reports on the excitement generated by Spain's favourite son

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN tell which group Seve Ballesteros is in even when you cannot see the man himself. He invariably draws a large gallery, a substantial number of whom can frequently be seen congregated in some remote area of rough, protectively surrounding his ball as if indulging in some arcane pagan ritual.

It was like that on occasions during the first two days of this year's Open Championship at Royal St George's, never more so than on the par-five seventh hole on Friday.

Ballesteros hooked his drive into thick rough. As if horrified to discover that he had not perpetrated anything more damaging, his next shot was a worse hook into worse rough. The crowd scurried after the errant ball with almost macabre zest. People hurried to look at Seve's ball in the rough for the same reason they are fascinated by a car crash at a grand prix. Will he get out of this alive? He did this time, eventually getting down in two putts from 80 feet to save his par.

If all this sounds redolent of the Ballesteros of old, that is not an entirely accurate impression. The mannerisms remain the same - the way he stalks the line of the shot, shrugs his shoulders, shuffles his feet, frowns as if in puzzlement and then finally executes the stroke - but the halcyon days are, for the moment anyway, a glorious memory rather than a spirited celebration of contemporary sporting excellence.

'It was like the old times in the way I kept missing the fairways,' Ballesteros said on Friday, 'but I did not make the putts like I used to.' He added wistfully: 'It's always difficult when you're fighting for par hole after hole.'

Ballesteros shot 73, three over par, on Friday and he did indeed miss seven putts from inside 10 feet. On the other hand, he holed enough to salvage that score despite only hitting six greens in regulation.

The fact that he had missed only three fairways in the process of shooting 68 on Thursday could not disguise the fact that Ballesteros is far from being at his best, even though his performance did induce his fans to put their money where their hearts are.

Before the start of the championship, Ballesteros had been so poorly supported by the punters that a win for him at Sandwich would have cost William Hill a paltry pounds 1,000. By the time he had completed his first round, they were in jeopardy to the tune of pounds 70,000.

A week in which Ballesteros displayed some of his old fire, verve and inspiration began with an unpropitious omen. The house he has rented for the week was burgled, with two television sets and two cars - belonging to the property's owner - being stolen. This was somehow bleakly appropriate, because lately it has seemed as if someone has sneaked in and made off with Seve's game; or that the wheels have come off it.

In 12 appearances in Europe this season, he has missed the cut five times. He only missed it six times in the whole of the 1980s. But not only has his putting stroke become less assured, his rhythmical, albeit mercurial swing has become increasingly prone to error as he has been tempted by a plethora of conflicting technical advice.

That he has not won a tournament since March last year can be partly attributed to the fact that his mind has been befuddled by more swing thoughts than Tarzan. Consequently, his swing has had more planes than British Airways.

At his best, Ballesteros' ability to caress and manoeuvre a golf ball is without peer. He can drive with the audacity of an Ayrton Senna, scramble with the efficiency of the Red Arrows and draw with the touch of Vermeer. Recently, however, his form has faded like an old master left too long in the sun.

On Thursday, in particular, he reminded us of what he is capable, which may convince the sceptics that he will be a worthy recipient of one of Captain Bernard Gallacher's three wild-card invitations to join the European Ryder Cup team when they are announced at the end of next month.

It is certain that Ballesteros will require an invitation to make the team. He is scheduled to play in just one more European tournament, in Sweden in a fortnight's time, before the team are selected, and even victory there would not earn him a place as of right. There seems little doubt, given his recent pronouncements, that Gallacher will offer him a wild card. There seems no doubt that Ballesteros will accept it.

Not only have his public utterances on the topic made that abundantly clear, but so did his attitude when Sandy Lyle was in a similar dilemma in 1989. Lyle was offered a wild card by the then captain, Tony Jacklin, but declined it because of his poor form. Lyle's action was wildly applauded as a selfless gesture, but while acknowledging the innate decency of Lyle's action, Ballesteros suggested privately that the decision was the wrong one.

He fervently believes that the Ryder Cup, embracing the unique demands posed by matchplay as opposed to strokeplay golf, is a wholly different game to regular tournament play.

'All you have to do is think about the guy you have in front of you,' he said. 'You don't have to think about hitting good shots.' The Ryder Cup without Ballesteros would be as empty as Hamlet without the prince; as unsatisfying as a Hamlet without a light. As he has repeatedly demonstrated this week, what makes Ballesteros such an extraordinary matchplay golfer is his ability to rescue the seemingly irretrievable; to win a hole with a par against an opponent unsettled because moments before it had seemed likely Ballesteros would lose it with a bogey.

Ballesteros flies out of Sandwich tonight to play an exhibition match at his home course of Pedrena tomorrow. He and Jose Maria Olazabal will take on Tom Watson and Payne Stewart in the Royal Green Cup. The Ryder Cup it ain't, but come September, he will surely be playing in that, too.

Robert Green is editor of Golf World

(Photograph omitted)