Golf: Time steals away with Ballesteros' swing

61st US MASTERS: Suffering is a matter of course for most who take on the testing challenge of Georgia's slickest greens; Robert Green reports from Augusta on the discomforting sight of a former genius of the game reduced to the ranks of the golfing also-rans
Click to follow
If Seve Ballesteros had played the 13th, 14th and 15th in level par on Thursday, he would have shot a highly respectable one-over-par 73 for the first day of the Masters. But in golf, as with all sports, the word "if" is the cheapest currency in the language. Seve actually played those holes in 6-6-8, which makes for a horrible progression of bogey, double-bogey, triple-bogey.

Shortly afterwards, an 81 was on the card and the writing was on the wall. He was going to miss the cut at Augusta for the first time since 1984, when he was the defending champion. A 74 yesterday merely confirmed the extent of his failure.

From 1980, when he won the title for the first time aged 23, through until 1990, Ballesteros had five other top-five finishes and won again in 1983. He almost acted as if he owned the place. Right now, it seems that someone else has possession of his swing.

While the superficial impression of a round that included 14 pars, including 12 in succession from the second, is of what is customarily referred to these days as a Faldoesque performance, that would be misleading. Ballesteros's drive at the second was a comparatively feeble high push into the trees which benefited from a kindly ricochet on to the fairway.

He took advantage of that break to secure his par, which was just as well since he had started with a bogey and another immediately afterwards may have had unwanted repercussions. Instead, bogeys at the 14th and 17th, with a birdie at the 15th sandwiched in between, were to be his only other deviations from par.

Maybe the most baffling aspect of Ballesteros's current woes are the specifics of the malaise that bedevils him. The one thing he cannot do is find a swing that will regularly deposit the ball in the fairway, particularly off the tee.

His short game, the department which most professionals find to be the most capricious, remains outstanding, as he demonstrated with preposterous conviction during his match against Tom Lehman at the 1995 Ryder Cup.

Yesterday Ballesteros was clad in navy and white, the colours that in his pomp signified his battle dress on the final day when he was in contention. This season, Seve's final day has been Friday. This made it six missed cuts from six starts this season.

As ever, his disappointment on the course was masked by his determination never to give up. He tried on every shot. But after saddling himself with that 81, a 74 represented too many of them. And then there was no disguising his chagrin.

"I came here because I thought I had a chance," he said. "Nothing happened today, but then that has been what's happened all year."

Unfortunately, what has actually happened this year is too many bogeys and not enough birdies.

While yesterday's round contained no palpable calamities - like the four- putt on the sixth, the three putts from six feet at the 13th and two balls in the water on the 15th, all of which he had perpetrated the day before - it did include 31 putts, many of those being decent efforts that just slid by the edge. That's what golf invariably does. When you're down, the ball won't go down.

While genuinely claiming that he had played better than his score suggested, Ballesteros acknowledges that his swing is currently not a pretty sight. "Right now," he concedes, "it looks awful, but I have belief in myself. It will get better."

There is no one in the game who does not want to see that. Butch Harmon, latterly Greg Norman's teacher and now the man charged with supervising Tiger Woods' action, is the latest in a line of teachers who have offered their advice. That is somehow both appropriate and perhaps ironic.

There is some sense this week of the passing of the torch. Seve turned 40 on Wednesday. He and his wife, Carmen, had dinner with Jose Maria Olazabal, whose remarkable recovery from injury has further emphasised the fact that Ballesteros is no longer the best golfer in Spain. By tomorrow night, the spectacularly precocious Mr Woods will hope to have supplanted him as the youngest-ever winner of the Green Jacket.