Golf: Will the real Seve Ballesteros stand up?

The great Spaniard's mood swings with his form, argues Ken Jones in Oak Hill
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The Independent Online
For many years one of the most exhilarating experiences in sport has been to see Severiano Ballesteros disdainfully taking on the tricks of golf course construction.

Right from the time Ballesteros's name first appeared on a leaderboard people began to go around saying that they had never seen another golfer quite like him. While the Spaniard's swing was a thing of beauty, it was his boldness, resulting frequently in sensational feats of shot-making, that most appealed to the galleries. Everybody had a tale of Ballesteros sending his ball from a car park to make birdie. He did not appear to know the meaning of trouble. If he had attempted to win a tournament using hickory shafts you would not have bet against him.

You never watched Ballesteros perform without marvelling at his gift and wondering where it came from. As a pure sporting talent he was up there with Muhammad Ali, Pele and Gary Sobers. He invented ways of winning. As Bill Shankly once said of Tom Finney, he could have played in his overcoat.

But time waits for no golfer and it has not slowed respectfully to a crawl for the man who has done more than any other to popularise the game in Europe. There are the aches and pains and an awareness of the widespread impression that often these days he seems to be playing from memory. What happened to the brightness that once shone from his dark eyes?

This week Ballesteros is perhaps making a valedictory appearance in the event that helped forge his great reputation. Nineteen wins and five ties against 10 losses is some record to be taking into an eighth Ryder Cup, but can the Spaniard be again the inspirational figure he was at The Belfry in 1985 when the United States lost for the first time in 28 years?

Since a victory in the Spanish Open seven months ago nothing has gone right for one of the most imaginative golfers the game has seen. He missed two cuts on the Florida leg of the US PGA Tour and finished a bleak 45th in the Masters. Troubled by an old back injury, Ballesteros missed the cut in the US Open and was never remotely in contention at St Andrews, tieing for 40th place. By the time he failed to make the final two rounds of the US PGA Championship, playing dreadfully, all people could see in his game was dishevelment.

Attempting to rationalise the collapse of his form, depressed and almost unrecognisable on the golf course, Ballesteros said: "Because of this trouble with my back I haven't been able to swing the way I want. I've lost confidence. You hit a few bad shots, you miss cuts, and the confidence gets lower and lower."

In the British Masters at Collingtree last week Ballesteros was never the same man two days running. Far from improving his mood, an opening round of 69 resulted merely in a great deal of irritation. This was especially the case when questions about the Ryder Cup were put to him. "I'm fed up hearing about it," he said curtly. The next day, having made the cut comfortably, Ballesteros was different again. Instead of a scowl he wore a smile. People found him friendly.

As golfers do all their bleeding internally you can never be sure of what the game is doing to them. Any number of Tour players are considered to be Jekyll and Hyde characters. Apparently, one member of the European team is a louse on the course but a sweetheart off it.

If Ballesteros's mood swings are nothing new they may now be indicative of inner turbulence, preoccupation with the fact that time is crowding in on him. "Every golfer goes through it and right now, this is a down period for Seve," Tom Watson said recently. "That's the way golf is; that's the way life is. I feel bad, I don't like to see Seve in the situation he's in right now. But he's been there before and come back and won. I think it's only lack of confidence."

Ballesteros was in a slump and had an ailing back at The Belfry two years ago but prospered in partnership with his younger compatriot, Jose-Maria Olazabal. Since Olazabal first made the team in 1987, theirs has become the best double act in the game, one from which Ballesteros may have drawn the most benefit. As a pair they are 11-2-2 in the record book. This time, because of a troublesome foot condition, Olazabal is missing and many believe that his absence will further debilitate Ballesteros's fragile confidence.

It may be significant that Jack Nicklaus refers to famous aspects of Ballesteros's game in past tenses. "Seve's always been an aggressive player, a player who liked to drive the ball where he could drive it, not caring very much where he went and that was part of his charm," Nicklaus said. "He always got it back on the golf course and kept on playing. And he's got such great imagination around the greens, that's been his hallmark. Whenever he had to play any shot, he could play it."

When coming to speak on a dull and miserably damp afternoon in Rochester this week, Ballesteros seemed to be more relaxed than he has been for some time. He had clearly made one or two suggestions to Europe's captain, Bernard Gallacher, about the foursomes although he may not have been aware then that he would be left out this morning.

"Even if my game is not where I'd like it to be I still think it is good enough to take on the Americans," he said.

Nobody has shown a greater desire to defeat the US and in that respect Ballesteros is something of a talismanic figure. At his best the Americans feared him.

The big question is whether Ballesteros can get himself up for another great effort. There was a time when it would not have occurred to him to be philosophical. Now he says: "Things are not that terrible as long as it is only my golf that is being affected. As long as my family are healthy, it's really not a major problem. Golf is not everything. When I think about it I'm still very lucky."

Fine, but not quite what the European team wants to hear from him.