Ballesteros set for HK Open debut

SEVE Ballesteros will grace Fanling's fairways for the first time at next month's Hongkong Open.

The appearance of the 35-year-old Spanish superstar in Hongkong is a major coup for tournament organisers and the new sponsors of the US$250,000 event, the opening leg of the 1993 Asian Tour.

Attempts to lure big-name stars such as Ballesteros, American Fred Couples and Welshman Ian Woosnam to the territory began immediately after last month's announcement that British-American Tobacco (BAT), under the brand name Kent, had taken over from Hutchison Telecom as sponsors of the 72-hole tournament.

And following protracted negotiations, Ballesteros yesterday confirmed that he would make his debut in Hongkong from February 11 to 14.

David Berry, general manager of BAT (Hongkong), said: ''We are delighted that Seve Ballesteros will take part in the Open.

''The Hongkong Open is a high-profile event and one that has regularly attracted the best golfers from around the world. With Seve, Tom Watson and Japan's Isao Aoki in the field this year, that trend is being continued.'' Don Clegg, president of the Golf Association of Hongkong, said: ''With the confirmation of Ballesteros, this year's Open will be one of the strongest and most international ever.'' It is believed that the combined appearance fees being paid to Ballesteros and defending champion Watson of the United States amount to more than the total prize fund.

As far as the sponsors are concerned, though, they are confident of being handsomely rewarded for their financial outlay.

Before he arrives in Hongkong, Ballesteros will already have played in two events on the 1993 PGA European Tour - the Dubai Desert Classic in the last week of this month and the Johnnie Walker Classic in Singapore.

Although he has dropped to number 14 in the world rankings, Ballesteros remains one of the most charismatic players in the world and, as well as swelling the galleries, his presence at Fanling will ensure the Open receives international attention.

Despite a disappointing second half to 1992 when the father-of-two struggled to recapture the consistently brilliant form that brought him three British Open titles and two US Masters crowns, Ballesteros still managed to win twice on the 1992 PGA European Tour.

In the second event of the season, Ballesteros defeated Northern Irishman Ronan Rafferty in a sudden-death play-off in Dubai and less than a month later he added the Turespana Open de Baleares to his collection of titles.

He finished the season in 28th place on the PGA European Tour Order of Merit with earnings of almost US$260,000, taking his career earnings beyond the US$4.5-million barrier.

Those two successes took his tournament wins in Europe to 51. He also has the distinction of having won at least one tournament every year since 1976, an all-time European record.

The Spaniard also boasts a proud Ryder Cup record, having been the linchpin of the European team since making his debut in the event in 1979.

His inspirational performances helped the Europeans end America's dominance of the trophy with victory at The Belfry, in England's West Midlands, in 1985. He was also a member of the line-up that successfully defended the coveted cup in 1987 and 1989.

Although the Americans regained the trophy by the narrowest of margins at Kiawah Island in South Carolina in 1991, Ballesteros had the best record on either side, winning four of his five matches and halving the other.

The Hongkong Open will be an important event for Ballesteros as he attempts to regain his status among the game's elite and secure his place in the European team for September's Ryder Cup showdown at The Belfry.

Currently 22nd in the European Ryder Cup standings, Ballesteros suffered the ignominy of finishing last in the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Montego Bay three weeks ago - the first time he had endured such a fate in his illustrious professional career.

To win an automatic place in captain Bernard Gallacher's European team, Ballesteros needs to finish in the top nine.

''If I do not qualify, I don't want to be selected,'' said the Spaniard, for whom victory at Fanling would prove the perfect early-season tonic.