Spanish take steps back to main event

Peter Corrigan relishes the return to fitness of Ballesteros and his sidekick
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SEVE BALLESTEROS and Jose Maria Olazabal, the Spaniards who have blighted the lives of their golfing rivals not nearly enough in recent times, will make a joint comeback in Gran Canaria tomorrow. They partner each other in a sporty little four-ball better-ball match, competing against Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance for the Canaries Cup.

It is hardly a high-profile return, but neither can it be dismissed as low-key. The match at Las Palmas will be available via satellite television in 150 million homes world-wide, and by selecting Scottish opposition the organisers have ensured that whatever prize money is on offer will be enthusiastically contested. The very sight of them engaged in competitive action again will be a great boost for the European Tour.

It is ironic that a pair so closely linked on the course should have suffered such long parallel absences through injury, and appropriate that they should make a simultaneous return. The last time they were partners they won the Tournai Perrier de Paris 10 months ago, and the most formidable double-act in the Ryder Cup looked set to carry on their united menace against the Americans at Oak Hill in September.

Olazabal, however, had to withdraw from the European team because of continuing problems with his foot. Ballesteros went on to make an inspirational, if not devastatingly successful, contribution to Europe's famous victory and thereupon announced that he and his troublesome back injury would take a five-month break.

He has been true to that time scale almost to the week. Indeed, he didn't pick up a club until January but has spent three hours a day in the gymnasium strengthening his back, and he now considers himself in peak condition. He will test this self-valuation by going straight from the Canaries to play in this week's Moroccan Open, the Desert Classic in Dubai the following week and then on to the United States for a two-tournament build-up to the US Masters.

In what condition Olazabal considers himself is less certain, and he will be under scrutiny tomorrow for the pronounced limp that characterised his painful attempts to play last year, when his winnings slumped from the pounds 593,879 of 1994 to pounds 91,765. At the beginning of the year he had an operation to shorten the big toe on his right foot. He then developed a tumour between two other toes and in September was diagnosed as having rheumatoid arthritis in the foot. He has not played tournament golf since.

After a long rest and further treatment, his foot felt well enough to encourage him to enter the Tour's opening events, in Singapore and Australia in January. He thereupon caught flu and decided not to postpone his comeback until he was certain of full fitness.

He is not expected to join Ballesteros in Morocco but will be in Dubai before travelling to the United States in readiness for the Masters, which he won 1994 and in which, despite his injury, he finished as top European in 14th place last year.

In both cases, the European Tour has a massive interest in their return to full working order. It had to go to the other side of the world but the Tour had very good start to the year, with Ian Woosnam announcing himself as fully back to form, although he has tended to slip out of sight in recent weeks.

This weekend, the circuit has reached European soil for the first time, for the Catalonia Open, but it badly needs some big names to fight out exciting finishes in Morocco and in Dubai. With Montgomerie also choosing this time to return to action, the fields over the next two weeks will take on that star-bristling look again. If Europe's big names can demonstrate a bit of form before crossing the Atlantic for the Masters campaign a touch of Ryder Cup spirit might be invoked.

It may be asking a little too much for Ballesteros to mark his new captaincy of the European team with a triumphant return to the lists but with both he and his playing partner, you will never ask more of them than they are demanding of themselves.