James Lawton: This imitiation Ballesteros has returned only to slaughter the memory of a legend

The man who gave us such pleasure is making a trade out of misery
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The Independent Online

That is a terrible thing to say about any man. But it is also a terrible thing to see. Some time ago a lot of nerve, not to say naked courage, went into what it was hoped would sound like a fairly benign question.

"Why," it asked, "don't you do what the great Walter Hagen said everyone must do? Why don't you smell the flowers, put your feet up, play a little pelota and generally get your head around the idea that there is a little more to life than shooting out the lights every time you step on a golf course?"

But then that's the trouble for Seve, there isn't, and when the question came in he gave the powerful impression he had been caught in one of those tirades of Spanish insult that, at their most inventive, can include suggestions that you strike up a liaison with a chicken or a goat. Ballesteros's eyes flashed, his lips pursed, and then he asked, "Are you saying I cannot play any more?"

That really wasn't what was being said, even if it was what the world was beginning to think. Maybe it was also what the great Seve was thinking. Whatever the truth of that, the sadness, and in the personal context of one of the most thrilling sportsman of any age it is a terrible one, is that this taut little exchange happened around 15 years ago. Fifteen years is a long time to turn yourself on a spit and in a week when golf was showing every sign of growing up along with the bewitchingly talented Hawaiian girl Michelle Wie, Seve's torment was like some throwback to medieval cruelty. Surely monks have had more fun thrashing themselves in their cells than Ballesteros did slipping 14 strokes off the pace in the Madrid Open.

One experienced golf writer said that watching Ballesteros return to tournament golf after a two-year absence required not just the squeamish to watch the action from between the fingers of the hands covering their faces. Sad, this, in the week when the astonishing Wie heard that she is just one qualifying tournament away from competing in the oldest major title, a decision of the Royal and Ancient, which, by their old standards, was rocket-style confirmation that the world has moved into the 21th century. Meanwhile, Ballesteros slips further into the vortex of his own making.

The worrying thing is the length of Ballesteros's crisis. It isn't a slump or a trough: it is terminal misery.

The man who gave us such exquisite pleasure is making a trade of misery and in the process turning the point of sport, and especially golf, on its head. He is also doing the same to the meaning of his glorious career. He should be remembered for the surge of the spirit that came when you saw him marching over the brow of a fairway, as proud as an conquistador, not as a beggar at the mercy of fate.

Two horrific flashpoints of memory: Rochester, New York, Ryder Cup, 1995... Ballesteros in the singles against Tom Lehman on the last day, scarcely hitting a fairway but scrambling sublimely at times. He walked up so many hills around the fairways and the greens he might have been one of the men of the watching Duke of York. Ballesteros suffered, he battled, and miraculously he stayed in touch with Lehman, just one down at the turn. Then he couldn't keep beating the odds. European celebrated the most thrilling of victories, Ballesteros, thrashed 4 and 3 in the end, was nudged a little further into his private hell.

Augusta, 1997: Ballesteros failing to beat the cut, ballooning the ball in the air, being jeered by rednecks, rich country club members perhaps, but still rednecks in their spirit, and the great man's former wife at the edge of the gallery, fighting back her tears, seeing someone she loved breaking up and having in her ears one cry of: "Jeez, did this guy ever know how to play golf." Did this guy ever know how to play golf? You didn't have the energy or the heart to tell the redneck how he used to be.

How nine years earlier Ballesteros won his last major, the Open. He was wearing a blue sweater and one headline announced a Rhapsody in Blue. Really, it was more flamenco, flashing drama, a castanet flurry of brilliance. One approach shot brushed the flag and settled gently, stone dead, and the crowd at Lytham went mad, and Seve's smile could have doubled for the illuminations up the road at Blackpool. Could this guy play golf? There wasn't the time to count the ways.

Once, Sugar Ray Leonard was asked a similar question to the one that so inflamed Ballesteros. He was working in a gym on Seventh Avenue a few days before he fought Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden. Everyone knew he was going to taking a beating, and when it came it was particularly brutal.

The snow swirled outside the window of the gym. Leonard turned the question around suavely. He said that he was a fighter and it was the best thing he would ever do. He asked his interrogator: "When will you stop writing? And when you do that don't you think you are going to feel diminished?" Nobody hits a writer, well not often, and practically never a golfer. But then there are different ways of measuring pain. Ballesteros's is so deep it has worn down much of the best of his life. That is the worst of it. That is the horror as the bogeys pile up. Last night the great man was second last on the leaderboard.

O'Shea reaps modern football's reward for falling down on the job

John O'Shea yesterday signed a new four-year contract with Manchester United. Two years ago that would have been one of the underpinnings of Old Trafford glory. John O'Shea looked like a major player, big, versatile, lovely touch, a kid going places. Now he is becalmed, out of the first team and scratching for his place in the threadbare Irish Republic side that trailed out of the World Cup so dismally this week.

There are various theories. One is that he got rich and famous and caught in the culture of ease and preferment that from time to time has Roy Keane crying at the moon. John Giles, who while covering the World Cup campaign for Irish televison has been dismayed by O'Shea's regression, was once one of his biggest fans. "He seemed to have everything," Giles was saying, "strength, height, the sweetest of touches, he could play in three or four positions, but you would hardly recognise him now. He looks like a player who needs a kick up the backside three or four times.

"It's hard to know precisely what's gone wrong, but let's put it this way, he doesn't look like a hungry fighter."

If that is the root of the problem, a four-year deal is maybe not the best antidote. So why would United push him into such a comfort zone? Not because he is lighting up the sky, at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson's earlier generation of young players were winning Premiership titles and the European Cup, but because the club is protecting their investment, keeping up his value as a name player. It is the story of modern football, which may just have claimed another victim.

Don't let extras rule Flintoff's life

Freddie Flintoff, we now learn, is to include an operatic version of Jerusalem in the bulging portfolio of business opportunities arising from his heroics in England's Ashes triumph. The Lancastrian's empire is expanding so dramatically that he seems certain to become the richest cricketer of all time. Heaven knows, in these grab-all times, he cannot be blamed.

But there is a worry, and it is not to do with the big man's nature. The star of the summer also looks like a good lad for all seasons. But he can stand only so much distraction, and it is something for the businessmen who are shaping his fortune, and their share of it, to remember.

He may be their cash cow, but he's also the nation's lion. Somewhere here there is a line that mustn't be crossed, and for his sake most of all.