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07 May 2011 07:27
Severiano Ballesteros, who died on Saturday aged 54, was one of golf’s all-time greats, a charismatic figure who lifted five majors, led the European challenge to the decades-long US supremacy and turned a new generation onto the sport.
For two decades, from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, “Seve” was one of the sport’s most celebrated personalities.
He collected 87 career titles and was a crucial ingredient in Europe’s rediscovered love affair with the Ryder Cup, before retiring in 2007 with back problems.
Known for his flamboyant and imaginative style of play, he famously won one of his three British Open titles by playing a shot from a temporary parking lot.
Ballesteros was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour after losing consciousness at Madrid airport on October 6 2008.
He underwent four operations to remove the tumour and reduce swelling in his skull, as well as chemotherapy. He called his battle against the tumour the “hardest challenge of my life”.
“During my career I was one of the best at getting around obstacles on golf courses.
Now I want to be the best at confronting the most difficult match of my life with all my strength,” he had said in a statement when he revealed his illness.
Born in the village of Pedrena near the northern port of Santander on April 9 1957, he rose from humble beginnings (his father was a greenkeeper) in Spain, a country with little or no track record for golf.
But his three older brothers were all golf pros as well as his uncle, who was Spanish professional champion four times and was sixth in the 1965 Augusta Masters.
His brother Manuel gave him a three-iron as a present, and he sharpened his skills on the beach near his home on moonlit nights.
Ballesteros announced his presence as a teenager in 1976 when he finished second at the British Open, just two years after turning pro aged 16.
He could have won. He led at the midway point but a final round of 74 left him six shots behind eventual champion Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale.
Topping the European Tour Order of Merit that year—he would go on to do so on another five occasions—was a measure of compensation.
In 1979, aged 21, he became the youngest winner of the British Open.
A year later, he was the first European to make the breakthrough at the Augusta Masters, opening the floodgates for the likes of Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and his Spanish compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal.
That first of two Masters titles made him, at 23, the youngest winner before Tiger Woods reduced the bar in 1997.
Across the 1980s Ballesteros bestrode the green like a sporting behemoth, adding further British Open titles in 1984 and 1988 and also winning five World Match Play Championships.
His Ryder Cup exploits were equally impressive, spearheading the landmark 1985 win over the Americans, the first since 1957.
Two years later the Ballesteros-inspired Europeans won on American soil for the first time and what had been a one-way contest had been changed for ever.
His Ryder Cup partnership with compatriot Olazabal proved the most successful in the history of the event—the pair notched 11 wins with two further matches halved out of 15 pairs.
He also skippered the 1997 Ryder Cup winning team on home ground in Valderrama.
Back problems though started to trouble him in the late 1990s and his form and confidence gradually ebbed away. On July 16 2007, he announced his retirement, although having turned 50 he was eligible for the Champions Tour and European Seniors Tour.
“I no longer have the desire and I am no longer willing to give away the things I did before,” an emotional Ballesteros said at the time.
“I gave away all my teenage years and fought day and night to give my all and focus 100% on my golf game. I have a number of good years ahead of me and want to spend some time with my three children and friends and family.”
He had already been limiting his schedule in the preceding years—a 2005 Madrid Open showing marked a brief comeback which saw him also enter the 2006 British Open Championship.
In 1988, he married Carmen Botin, the daughter of Emilio Botin, head of Santander bank and one of Spain’s richest men. The couple had three children and divorced in 2004.
Ballesteros was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999, where he joined the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Golf Digest magazine in 2000 ranked him as the greatest golfer Europe has produced. - AFP
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