/ 9 May 2011

Inspirational golf champion Ballesteros dies aged 54

Seve Ballesteros, one of golf’s most charismatic players who was renowned for his fist-pumping energy and magical shot-making, died on Saturday at the age of 54 after a long battle with brain cancer.

The Spaniard with the matinee idol looks, who won five major titles in swashbuckling style and inspired a generation of players worldwide, died peacefully at his home in Pedrena, northern Spain, his family said in a statement.

His funeral will be held on Wednesday.

Tributes came pouring in, with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods talking about Ballesteros’s unique talent and influence and Nick Faldo describing him as golf’s “greatest show on earth”.

“Today golf lost a great champion and a great friend,” 18-times major champion Nicklaus said in a statement. “We also lost a great entertainer and ambassador for our sport.

“It was his creativity, his imagination and his desire to compete that made him so popular. Seve’s enthusiasm was just unmatched by anybody I think that ever played the game.”

A winner of three British Opens and two Masters titles, Ballesteros gave golf a much-needed lift in the mid-to-late 1970s. Along with Briton Tony Jacklin, he was also chiefly responsible for reviving Europe’s fortunes in the Ryder Cup team competition.

A man of humble background, he became a father figure for Spanish golf and replaced American Arnold Palmer as the game’s most flamboyant and charismatic figure.

Ballesteros won 87 titles worldwide, 50 of them on the European Tour, and captained Europe to Ryder Cup victory at Valderrama in Spain in 1997.

He claimed his first major in the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham, earning the tag of ‘car park champion’ after conjuring remarkable rescue shots from all parts of the course.

Wall shot
Billy Foster, one of his former caddies, told Reuters he remembered trying to dissuade Ballesteros from going for a seemingly impossible shot from behind an eight-foot (2,5m) wall at a tournament in Switzerland.

“He waved me away and proceeded to hit a wedge with half a backswing over the wall, through some trees where there was a tiny gap the size of a dinner plate, over a swimming pool, over 60-foot [1,8m] trees, and got it five yards [4,55m] short of the green and then chipped in,” said Briton Foster.

“Seve just laughed and I got down on my hands and knees and bowed to him.”

Former world number one Woods, winner of 14 majors, was “deeply saddened” to learn of the Spaniard’s death.

“Seve was one of the most talented and exciting golfers to ever play the game,” Woods said on Twitter.

“His creativity and inventiveness on the golf course may never be surpassed. His death came much too soon.”

Faldo, a six-times major winner, said in a statement: “He was a leader; bringing the spotlight to the European Tour, paving the way to European success at the United States Masters and bringing his relentless passion to the Ryder Cup.

“For golf he was the greatest show on earth. I was a fan and so fortunate I had a front row seat.”

The death of Ballesteros was poignantly felt at the Spanish Open being played in Terrassa in the north east of the country where players wore black ribbons and observed a minute’s silence.

While flags at the course were flying at half-mast, Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez embraced on the practice range at the start of the day as they remembered their friend and compatriot.

From the age of seven, Ballesteros used a cut-down three-iron on the beach near his home in Santander and this helped him master the art of the manufactured shot from just off the green.

His brilliant, and often miraculous, shot-making dazzled generations of players around the world.

“I’ve always said most of us could shoot 65 in about 30 or 40 ways,” Zimbabwe’s former world number one Nick Price said in a statement. “He could do it about 10 000 different ways.

“He could miss every fairway, chip in five times, hole two bunker shots. He was so creative around the greens.”

Unique legacy
European Tour chief executive George O’Grady said Ballesteros was an inspiration as a player and as a man.

“Seve’s unique legacy must be the inspiration he has given to so many to watch, support and play golf and finally to fight a cruel illness with equal flair, passion and fierce determination,” O’Grady said in a statement.

“We have all been so blessed to live in his era. He was the inspiration behind the European Tour.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge described Ballesteros as a “once in a generation athlete” in his sport.

“Seve Ballesteros was a man of incredible skill, charisma and courage as a sportsman and the dignified way he fought against his disease was characteristic of the man and was an inspiration to us all,” Rogge said in a statement.

Britain’s Graeme McDowell, the US Open champion, said on Twitter: “One of my favourite lines I have read [today] … ‘Apparently God needed a short-game lesson’. RIP Seve.”

Ballesteros’s brain tumour was discovered when he collapsed at Madrid airport in late 2008 and was rushed to a nearby hospital.

He had four operations and a course of chemotherapy, appearing in public again for the first time in 2009.

“Today, at 2.10am Spanish time, Seve Ballesteros passed away peacefully surrounded by his family at his home in Pedrena,” the family said on Saturday. — Reuters