Seve’s senior moment

For Seve Ballesteros, the golf course, in competition, is where he is meant to be. Simon Lewis found him loving his new challenge.

WELL, he did warn everyone.

Seve Ballesteros began life as a rookie on the Champions Tour at the weekend but the five-time major winner, who turned 50 last month asked his huge legion of fans not to expect too much from him as he made his debut as a senior at the Regions Charity Classic in Ross Bridge, Alabama.

And as the Spaniard heads to Kiawah Island in South Carolina this week for the Senior PGA Championship, you can be sure that the little surge of excitement recorded on the Seve career monitor last week will have returned to an all-too familiar flat-line.

Ballesteros, whose recent years on the course have been blighted by back problems and an horrific loss of form, rounded out a tough Champions Tour debut with a 73, eight shots better than his second round but tied with Lee Trevino at the tail end of a 78-player field on 16-over 216.

He had a terrible start on Friday, when paired with Lee Trevino and Jay Haas, opening with a double bogey and closing with a six-over 78 to fall 13 strokes behind leader Scott Hoch.

“It was a tough day, especially the way I started,” said Ballesteros, who had played only two tournaments in the last two years: last year’s Open at Hoylake and the Masters last month.

“I was nervous on the first tee and obviously making double bogey on the first hole didn’t help. I couldn’t put my whole game together.”

Asked to specify which aspect of his game was causing problems in that opening round, Ballesteros pinpointed, well, everything.

“Something was missing, either the tee shots or the irons, but mainly the putting. I didn’t putt very well. The last few holes I played a little bit better and I have a better idea what I have to do tomorrow. I hope I play better.”

Alas, Seve’s hopes were dashed. Saturday was even more dismal as he added an 81 to end the day dead last, 25 shots adrift of second-round pacesetter Bob Gilder. There was some cheer on Sunday at least and he did card three birdies on the final nine holes but at tournament’s end, Ballesteros admitted: “My game is not there. I’m very disappointed with my performance, but I did the best I could.”

Playing with Champions Tour money leader and defending Senior PGA champion Haas at the weekend will have given Ballesteros the reality check he knew was coming when pleading with the media not to lift people’s expectations too high regarding this latest phase of his career. Aside from his Masters outing in April, when he finished last on 22-over-par at 166, he had seen enough from watching the Champions Tour on Spanish television to comment: “The quality of golf that the players play is fantastic. I don’t for one second think that coming over here for me will be like a piece of cake. It will be very tough.”

Tough, but right. For Ballesteros, the golf course, in competition, is where he is meant to be.

“Real golfers all carry the game in our blood and in our heart,” he said. “We like to compete. To compete means not only to play good shots. To compete is to feel the pressure when you have to produce a good shot at the right moment or make a good putt at the right moment.

“That adrenaline that goes on at that particular time, that’s what I miss.”

At least this weekend’s venue will have a familiar feel to it. The Senior PGA Championship will be played out at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, site of the infamous “War On the Shore” at the 1991 Ryder Cup.

There will be 10 participants from that contest returning there for the first senior major of the season — Americans Hale Irwin, Chip Beck, Raymond Floyd, Wayne Levi, Mark O’Meara, Lanny Wadkins and captain Dave Stockton as well as Europeans, Ballesteros, Mark James and Sam Torrance.

The Europeans lost by just one point there as the usually nerveless Bernhard Langer missed a par-putt in his singles match against Hale Irwin that would have sealed victory. Ballesteros, though, earned 4½ points to further enhance his reputation as a Ryder Cup legend.

It was not a Ryder Cup moment, however, that Ballesteros cited last week as his favourite golfing memory. Instead, he recalled the 1984 Open at St Andrews, when he won his duel with Tom Watson with his final putt.

“That was pretty special,” he said. “Again, winning the British Open is something fantastic and very special, but winning in St Andrews, the home of golf, is even more special. I actually made a tattoo on my left arm, so that tells you how big that victory was to me.”

The Open, in 1988, gave him his final victory, yet for all the years in the wilderness, Ballesteros said he was still happy with his lot.

“Life is like a dream. You go to bed and you wake up with age. I don’t know if that’s a good translation, but we say that in Spain,” said Ballesteros.

“In one way it looks like it’s been many, many years, and on the other hand it looks like it was yesterday when I joined the Tour.”

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