Stirrings of the old Seve

Paul Trow in Hong Kong finds Europe's talisman recovering his touch
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The United States should beware - the cough is getting worse, and the scores are beginning to get better.

Seve Ballesteros, who Paul Azinger noticed always seems to clear his throat on his opponent's backswing, has at last been approaching something like full throttle this week at the Alfred Dunhill Masters in Hong Kong. And after a dismal year on, or rather off, the fairways of Europe, he was a lot more like his old self yesterday.

On Friday night, the 29-year-old Spaniard's gullet was so sore as a result of the Oriental humidity that he called a doctor to his hotel room. "I didn't feel at all good and I was thinking of pulling out of the tournament," said Ballesteros, who was only one under par and way off the pace after his first two rounds. "The doctor gave me this Chinese medicine and it tastes horrible, but sometimes if you feel bad you play well."

He must have felt dreadful in yesterday's third round. He carded six birdies in a 5-under-par 66, hitting nearly every fairway and green in regulation. "My game is getting better so maybe if we play 10 rounds I will have a chance of winning," said Ballesteros who, despite his return to form, still trailed the Australian Scott Laycock by eight shots going into today's final round.

But the cough is not the only reason why he is more like the Seve of old this week. Since his appointment as Europe's captain for next September's Ryder Cup defence at Valderrama in southern Spain, Ballesteros has been toying with the idea of playing in the side as well as leading it. Since declaring an interest in being a playing captain, he has crumbled to his worst European season in 21 years.

"It's difficult to play well without motivational confidence," said the man who has won three British Opens, two US Masters and 67 other titles world-wide. "There is nothing else wrong with my game apart from a lack of confidence," he said. "But then that's everything isn't it. I've had fitness problems of one kind or another all year, but who knows? Things might improve this week or next week when I play in Japan."

Why anyone should doubt that things would improve is beyond reason. Not only is Ballesteros capable of firing on all cylinders when he appears to be spluttering, but he is also often at his best when he is waging battles on every conceivable front.

In that respect, this has been a vintage week. First there was a continuation of the war of words with Europe's No 1, Colin Montgomerie, over his design of Valderrama's 17th hole. "Monty's opinion doesn't count to me," Ballesteros said about the player likely to be one of the first on his team sheet. "If the complaint came from someone else, I would listen, but not to him. I don't like people expressing an opinion which is dictated by their mood after playing a hole badly. I think it's a fantastic hole, and I'm very proud of it."

Then Ballesteros, who has moaned all year about the quality of courses used by the European Tour and their possible impact in his Ryder Cup side, cast a sceptical eye over the 1997 schedule. "Eleven months - that's quite short," he quipped. "Why don't we put on a tournament in December and call it the Christmas Open?"

He was clearly not impressed that contenders for places in his team would have to travel around the world as far afield as Australia, South Africa, Dubai and Morocco in the first seven tournaments of the season in the hunt for qualifying points.

"We should rename it the European World Tour looking at this schedule," he said. Then he smiled . . . and coughed.