Not that there was even a hint from the three-times champion that he was forsaking his berth as a past winner to allow in his old Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal, but it was impossible not to know the man and, more importantly, the effort he had put in to make it to Fife this year to speculate that this was his intention.
As Olazabal's agent, Sergio Gomez, said, doing everything but winking yesterday: "It is amazing. If Seve had pulled out next Monday, it might not have been Jose Maria who got the place."
Could Ballesteros have possible known that by officially withdrawing this week he would be opening the way for Olazabal as the highest-ranked player not already qualified? Miss Marple need not be consulted in answer to that. But Seve played along with the official line anyway.
"Unfortunately, I am not yet at the competitive level I would expect," he said, still suffering with the back injury that has kept him out since November, 2003. "I wish to stress that I have no plans to retire."
However, that was the pervading feeling on the Palmer Course at the K Club here as the European Open got under way with two South Africans at the head of the field. Trevor Immelman's 66 owed everything to an undoubted talent raising its 25-year-old head after bewilderingly being kept hidden for the past few months, while Retief Goosen's 67 was in debt to a psyche that has refused to be crushed by one of golf's cruellest blows.
Two weeks ago the 36-year-old looked the certain winner of his second US Open in succession when going into the final day with a lead of three. "Tournament over," said the experts, knowingly. There followed an 81. "Career over," said the experts, knowingly.
Er, not quite, as yesterday's three birdies and an eagle proved on his cathartic return to the fairways. "I'm fine about it," Goosen said, when asked about his Pinehurst nightmare. "Everybody else seems to be more worried about it than I am. Nothing like that is going to bother me."
In fact, it was a day for humbling perspective all round as three back from Immelman – after a 69 that was remarkable given that he has barely lifted a club for the past month – was Darren Clarke. The Ulsterman pulled out of the US Open after his wife's continuing fight with cancer took a turn for the worse.
"Heather wanted me to come back playing again,so I'm here trying to do as well as I can," said Clarke, who would have been only two off the lead but for going in water at his penultimate hole. Once a disaster, now a meaningless distraction .
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