Seve pins hopes on new club

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The Independent Online
Seve Ballesteros addressed the ball and made the sort of mistake everybody makes. He inadvertently gave it a little nudge and it toppled off the tee peg. "That," he said,"is how nervous Greg Norman felt in the final round of the Masters." Having been there before, Ballesteros knows the feeling.

He has conquered Augusta National twice but has also blown winning positions, although not quite to the degree of Norman's infamous demise last month, when he shot 78 to Nick Faldo's 67 and turned a six-stroke lead into a five-stroke defeat. Norman may not have a green jacket but he is the No 1 in the world, a position once occupied by Ballesteros.

When it comes to triumphs and disasters they are both in the Kipling class, but whereas Norman might have an off day the 39-year-old Spaniard has off seasons. In video terms, Ballesteros is in the throes of Slump IV. Yesterday at Sunningdale he officially unveiled the club with which he hopes to launch yet another comeback. After more than a decade with the British company Dunlop-Slazenger, he signed a contract to play the American brand Cobra.

This happens to be the club that Norman uses. The endorsements are as follows: "Norman used the prototype King Cobra Titanium driver to win the Australian Open last November and it helped him capture the Doral Ryder Open in March." Similarly, Hale Irwin saw his average driving distance increase from 239 yards to 255 when he switched to the space-age alloy. Naturally, there is no mention of the Cobra biting the Great White Shark in the rear at Augusta.

Norman was smart enough to buy into the company, and when it went public he made around $40m (pounds 26.5m). Ballesteros's return will be a more modest $1m, but that is on condition that he starts finding a few fairways. They say that titanium is the greatest thing to happen to golf since grass: 40 per cent lighter than steel, 20 times stronger, superior trajectory and an oversize club head that is so large that even Ballesteros would have trouble avoiding the sweet spot. It will retail at pounds 325.

After returning from a five-month sabbatical, Ballesteros tested his new clubs in the Moroccan Open. His first drive went about 50 yards and demolished a palm tree. He missed the cut. Since then, Cobra's engineers have been working with Ballesteros at his home in Pedrena, perfecting a tailor-made club for Europe's Ryder Cup captain.

"My driving," he said, "prevented me from scoring well. I took a break because I lost desire and interest. When you go to work and you don't feel like it, it's difficult to do a good job." It's especially difficult if you're a professional golfer and you haven't a clue where the ball's going.

Confidence, Ballesteros said, was the key. "It's getting better. Now I have to compete. No matter how good you are, how much talent you have, you need to play and work hard." On Sunday, when the Ryder Cup cream were blown away in the Benson and Hedges International at The Oxfordshire, Ballesteros shot 77 and finished joint 26th, his best result this season. So is the real Seve going to stand up? "I'm going to win a tournament this year," he said, adding that Wentworth, where the Volvo PGA is being held this week, and Royal Lytham, where he has won the Open on the last two occasions it has been held there, were courses to "give me a lift and the desire to play''.

Yesterday, on Sunningdale's practice ground, he was in splendid form, launching salvoes towards a house at the end of the range that has just been bought by Gary Lineker. Seve went through a repertoire that seemed to confirm a lack of confidence is no longer his principal problem. He hit drives standing on one leg.

"You want to see Woosie?" Seve got on his knees and smacked the ball down the middle; for Colin Montgomerie he wore an expression once described by David Feherty as that of a "bulldog licking piss off a nettle''; he did Arnie, Faldo (are you all right there Fanny?), and a Lee Trevino that Rory Bremner would have been proud of. He could have done Ian Baker-Finch by hitting it into somebody's garden but that would have been too close to the mark.

Ballesteros even gave a few lessons to the hacks. For the fashion-minded, I wore my Nick Faldo Pringle top and a shirt from Greg's Shark collection, but I forgot my swing. Seve pointed out that there was not enough movement in the ankles, knees and hips, but apart from that it was okay. He suggested a sabbatical.