Seve remains doubt for Muirfield

ALTHOUGH earlier this week he announced his debut as a 50-year-old on the Champions Tour in Alabama next month, the state of Seve Ballesteros' fragile back will decide whether or not the charismatic Spaniard makes his first appearance as a senior golfer in Scotland this summer.

Enthusiastic enough about possibly playing in the Senior British Open at Muirfield for the first time to have already arranged provisional accommodation at a private house in East Lothian, the three-time Open champion was more guarded about making a binding commitment to the event itself when he spoke with George O'Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour, during the Masters at Augusta.

While there's no doubting Seve's desire to play on a links he's always liked - as defending champion in 1980, he finished 19th behind Tom Watson at Gullane - an understandable caution persists about pledging his involvement to events when questions remain about his fitness.

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Andy Stubbs, managing director of the European Seniors Tour, acknowledged yesterday that Seve's participation at the first Senior British Open to be hosted by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was still "a bit of an unknown".

Stubbs added: "Of course we would love to have him at Muirfield. He told George [O'Grady] at the Masters that he would like to play but wanted to be sure he was fit to play. I think for Seve at the moment it's a case of taking one step at a time. Even on the Champions Tour, he's only committing to upcoming events in America."

Having struggled with chronic back and knee problems which once confined him, briefly, to a wheelchair and seemed sure to signal the end of his playing career, Seve's involvement at Augusta earlier this month for the first time since the 2003 Masters was a welcome return to the major he first captured in 1980. If the unseasonably cold weather did his back few favours and the stern course set-up was even less accommodating to a rusty game, nevertheless it was clear the Spaniard was a long way short of tournament readiness. He carded 166 for 36 holes and finished dead last.

In conversation after Friday's second round, when he covered the front nine in 37, two shots fewer than Tiger Woods took that day, Seve tried to emphasise positive elements while acknowledging his lack of a competitive edge. Once he'd made the point that seven months had elapsed since his last tournament and that he'd arrived ill-prepared in Augusta, Ballesteros was strangely reluctant to reel off the string of forthcoming events which could give him a chance, among his peers, to regain the ability to compile a score. Although it is true that he did say he would play in the Masters again.

Those who know his fierce sense of pride, mind you, wondered if this might have been Seve's swansong on a course which has changed as much as he has over the past 30 years.

Although he performed reasonably at Hoylake last summer, it was also understandable that Ballesteros was guarded about playing in the Open at Carnoustie in July. He carded scores of 80 and 86 there in 1999.

And, on his Open debut in Angus as a teenager in 1975, he posted rounds of 79 and 80. For a winner at Lytham, twice, and St Andrews, few of Seve's treasured Open memories are buried at Carnoustie.

The set-up at Muirfield from 26-29 July, on the other hand, should be gentler and more conducive to Seve's shot-making skills. The chance of Ballesteros joining a field already set to include past champions Nick Faldo and Tom Watson, as well as possibly involving Nick Price and Mark O'Meara, will hinge on his performances on the Champions Tour over the next couple of months.

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But if his back is up to the challenge and he gains a bit of confidence from posting a few decent scores in America, the prospect of Seve pitting his skills in East Lothian against such a classic test of golf is still alluring.