x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Seve was the king of clubs

The Spaniard's short game was legendary and he had a range of shots that most players can only dream about.

Seve Ballesteros learned at an early age the best way to get out of tough situations on the course.
Seve Ballesteros learned at an early age the best way to get out of tough situations on the course.

It's well known that Seve Ballesteros learned to play golf on the beaches near his home at Pedrena, Northern Spain, using a three-iron given to him by one of his elder brothers. That basic early introduction to golf helped Seve to become one of the game's greatest ever stroke makers. Having only one club forced him to experiment to be able to hit different shots and it led to him developing a far greater range to his game than most players could dream about.

Of course, he had a huge amount of natural talent, but Seve was a hard worker as well and I always felt he made the greatest use of practice, and practice rounds, of any golfer I have seen. This was underlined to me when I played a round with him at Augusta in readiness for the 1984 US Masters and learned so much about the course and how to prepare for the tournament. His short game was legendary, and while being the best putter the game has ever seen puts Tiger Woods ahead overall in that depart- ment, Seve had the edge with his chipping and bunker play.

Put any club in his hands and he could summon up one of a variety of chip shots from his repertoire to suit the occasion. Seve also loved challenges. He would deliberately tread on his ball in a bunker during a practice round in order to give himself the most difficult shot he was every likely to face in a tournament. I imagine the current world No 1 will have done things like that over and over again during the last few weeks as he prepares for his return to golf at next month's US Masters.

While little is known about how Tiger has been readying himself for Augusta, it would be very naive to think that he has left anything to chance and I would not be surprised to learn that he has been playing golf behind closed doors for some time. In any case, this is the most competitive golfer the game has seen. Competitiveness is not something he needs to practice. It comes naturally for Tiger, who has the strongest desire to win of any player present or past.

The way his private life was put under the microscope over the last four months may actually have increased that desire, as winning will be the best way to get everyone talking about his golf again. It must have been difficult for him to turn down Arnold Palmer, whose prestigious tournament - starting at Bay Hill in Orlando today, just minutes from Tiger's home - is the first of the year's big invitational events and has again attracted a top-class field.

Augusta though is the logical choice for his return. He was never going to miss a major, least of all the one which guarantees the tightest control over spectators and media in the game today. He will still be a little apprehensive about the reception he can expect from some sections of the public, although helping him is the fact that the Augusta National simply does not tolerate troublemakers, and no-one wants to have the hottest ticket in golf snatched away.

Hopefully, everything will go smoothly and golf can move on. The game needs Augusta to serve up a classic and I have a feeling that we could see something special. For many of those teeing it up at Bay Hill it will be their final event before the Masters in a fortnight's time, and players like the world No 2 Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, the world No 3, and Ernie Els, the recent WGC winner, will be especially keen to have a positive experience before Augusta.

One of my main hopes is that the putting of Mickleson and Els continues to improve as they both have the ability to push Tiger to the limit and create the kind of intense rivalry that will be so good for the game. Sergio Garcia is another potential threat to Woods, but whatever he is doing to try and resolve his problems on the greens, he needs a new direction if he is to have any chance of unsettling the world No 1.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Tour hits mainland Europe today for the first time this season, with the Open de Andalucia getting underway in the southern end of Spain. This is about as early in the year as the European weather permits tournament golf, but while we had to wait until now for the Tour to begin when I was playing in the 1980s, and 1990s, 12 events have already been played this season.

This highlights the way the Tour has developed in recent years, reaching into Africa, Asia and the Middle East in order to have a much earlier start, and moving overseas again when the cold weather returns later in the year. This season, 22 European Tour events are being played outside Europe, while in contrast England has only one event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May. This is something that needs to be addressed following the demise of the English Open and the Dunhill British Masters which leaves the Tour looking more than a little threadbare in the UK.

Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin ( www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US. @Email:sports@thenational.ae