Brian Viner at Hoylake: Red rag rekindles fighting spirit of ageing bull Seve

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The Independent Online

The bookmakers who decided to hand out just a pound for every 50 wagered on Seve Ballesteros missing the 36-hole cut would not have reconsidered their measly 1-50 odds after watching the great man hit his opening tee shot, an uncertain drive ballooned right. And yet, by the time he doffed his cap to an adoring crowd 18 holes later, Ballesteros had a 74 on his card, which constituted the Spanish version of a two-fingered gesture to all those, bookies included, who had fully expected him to return a score in the high 80s, somewhere on a par with the temperature.

Generally, a 74 is nothing for a professional golfer to write home about, but for 49-year-old Ballesteros, playing in his first Open since 2001 and suffering wretched form on his rare tournament appearances, it was practically worth sending an emissary with the good news. Not that he needed to, because his biggest fan, his 15-year-old son Baldomero, was right by his side, carrying his bag.

Beforehand, Ballesteros had said that whatever happened, he just wanted Baldomero - who plays off a handicap of one, and intends to turn pro - to experience an Open Championship. But what kind of experience might it have been to see the old man humiliated? After all, the best he could manage at the recent French Open was a pair of 81s. With his confidence shot, and a persistent wild hook wrecking his practice rounds here, not even the three-times Open champion himself expected to shoot a respectable score.

As it turned out, he didn't even return the worst score in his three-ball, that dubious distinction going to Britain's Ian Poulter, who ended up with a miserable 75 under his belt, not to mention a quite preposterous pair of red trousers bearing an image of the claret jug in sequins, as well as a sequinned shirt.

Still, he adds to the gaiety of the nation. As Poulter approached the fifth green, a lone voice in the crowd sang out, "Like a rhinestone cowboy," which got a ripple of laughter, and at least was more complimentary than some of the comments flung his way in his last major championship appearance, the final round of the US Open at Winged Foot, where his head-to-toe pinkness caused the New York crowd to make loud and impolite (and wrong) assumptions about his sexuality.

As for his game, which is too often eclipsed by his clobber, Poulter was chugging along quite nicely at one under par until a disastrous triple-bogey seven at the 14th disfigured his card.

But, in truth, the crowd was far more interested in the tribulations of a Spaniard than an Englishman, and hardly interested at all in the third member of the trio, Shaun Micheel, who returned a 72. Off the seventh tee Ballesteros hit a shot that would have provoked a grimace in the lousiest of weekend golfers; a duffed drive of no more than 160 yards into deep rough. The shoulders sagged, and the tattoo on the inside of his left arm, of him making his famous clenched-fist salute at St Andrews in 1984, looked more than ever a reminder of another life.

But there were signs of the old swagger, too, and even a shot to make the galleries swoon with nostalgia, a quite brilliant three-wood to the 534-yard par-five 10th, setting up a relatively easy eagle chance that was narrowly missed. He duly bagged his birdie, his second in succession after a cracking two at the ninth, and returned to level par.

Among the wildly cheering crowd was a lad wearing an Everton shirt with Arteta on the back and a girl in a Liverpool shirt bearing the name of Xabi Alonso; this has become a part of the world where Spaniards prosper.

The level par scorecard did not last for long, however. Ballesteros bogeyed the 12th and then, from all of 12 feet on the par-three 13th, three-putted horribly for a second successive bogey.

That he then managed to par his way home owed something to the remarkable scrambling qualities that he patented years ago. He zigzagged his way clumsily down the long 16th, and again down the 17th, and both times salvaged par with a single bold putt. On the 18th, well short of the green, he showed the gallery that there is still some magic in his wedge.

"Well done, Seve la'" cried a Scouse voice, and afterwards he cited the manifest affection of the crowd as a factor in what he conceded was a surprisingly good round. Someone asked whether he had been distracted by Poulter's trousers.

"He looked to me like a matador," Ballesteros said. "But a matador should not wear red because it attracts the bull."

Maybe that was Poulter's problem. There was certainly some bull out there.

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