Golf: The thrill returns for Ballesteros: Ken Jones watches a rejuvenated Spaniard draw the gallery with his escape artistry

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AT approximately 2.15pm yesterday Severiano Ballesteros announced his presence at the 122nd Open Championship with a wayward drive that found knee-high rough to the right of the first fairway. The gallery groaned, the Spaniard scowled.

From the rough, Ballesteros went into a bunker. There was a time when this would not have been thought unusual, merely golfing's great escapologist at work. In that time he sometimes fired the ball into car parks and still made birdie.

This is a different, troubled time for him. This season he has missed cuts in the US Open and five times in Europe. Last week in the Bell's Scottish Open he finished miserably, well down the field. At Sandwich the betting reflected his decline. He was 66-1 and drifting. He went off at a selling plater's price but by the turn there were hints of the old, classic form.

First there was the first. Up and down from the bunker. Par saved. No trouble at the second. Then the par-three third. From the tee he went left into deep rough, so far down behind a bunker that he was playing blind. To get close from there required the qualities which stood out in his youth: boldness and imagination.

What Ballesteros conjured up was a shot that brought confidence flooding back and an appreciative gasp from the gallery. Rising steeply, the ball seemed to hang in the air before landing so softly you could imagine it would not have cracked a pane of glass. When it trickled to rebound from the pin leaving a putt of no more than two feet, the Spaniard's supporters sent up a great cheer.

Comfortably making par at the next, Ballesteros had begun to convey the impression that he was enjoying his work - a spring in his stride; a smile on his face. He looked eager on the tees as though St George's held no terrors for him.

There was, of course, a difference. Not perceptibly in the swing, which remains a thing of beauty, classic and yet distinctive, but in the margins he allowed himself. Where his inspired scrambling brought birdies, he now needs it to make par.

Probably, that is a simple truth about Ballesteros but there was plenty to suggest that the old brilliance has not yet deserted him. It was there at the seventh when he reached the green in two shots to set up an eagle chance. Birdie. The first red figure against his name.

At the par-four ninth he fired a drive to within a wedge of the green and gambled on taking the perilous way in, over a bunker, straight at the pin, perfectly floating his ball into the wind. It hung, heavy with backspin, and fell to within 10 feet. Another roar.

The magic continued. A birdie at the 12th, another at the 14th. Word had got around. The putts were dropping. The gallery grew. Ballesteros on the leaderboard. Just like old times. 'Come on Seve,' people shouted, and he waved. 'Wouldn't it be great,' somebody said, meaning if Ballesteros could sustain his form over four days.

Then, at the 17th he hit the first rank bad shot of his round. Bogey. Another at the last. But still two under, still a smile on his face. 'I felt more confident and comfortable out there than I've done for a long while,' he said.

In fact, Ballesteros had felt the years falling off him. 'I felt 15 years younger,' he added. 'It's funny, but coming here today I felt very confident and the reception I got on the first tee made me realise that there are still a lot of people out there who support me. It has been very difficult because of the questions. Why? What's going wrong? Try this, try that. Go here, there. It can get very confusing.'

The recoveries early in the round had settled him. 'If you start off making bogey it makes things very difficult,' he said. 'So it gave me heart to save par at the first, and again at the third. When the birdies started to come I felt my old self again.'

This week the house Ballesteros is renting near St George's was robbed. But nobody could take away the thrill he gets from playing well. 'How much have you missed it?' he was asked. Ballesteros smiled and spread his arms wide.