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Spain's Seve Ballesteros, golf legend, dies at age 54

Seve Ballesteros, the charismatic Spanish golfer who won five majors and helped propel Europe's rise in the Ryder Cup, died early Saturday at his home in northern Spain, where his struggle with brain cancer had gained wide attention in the sports world. He was 54.

Mr. Ballesteros had surgery for a cancerous brain tumor in October 2008 and was cared for at his home in the coastal town of Pedrena, where he died, his family said in a statement on his website.

Mr. Ballesteros was 19 and virtually unknown when he was thrust into the spotlight in July 1976. He was on the final hole of the British Open at Royal Birkdale, on England's west coast, when he hit a brilliant chip between two bunkers that landed 4 feet from the cup. He sank his putt to tie Jack Nicklaus for second place behind Johnny Miller after having led for three rounds.

That daring chip, and the shots before it that rescued him after wild drives into dunes and bushes, caught the golf world's attention and defined the kind of game that made Mr. Ballesteros one of his era's finest players.

With a passion for perfection, an uncommon intensity and a brilliant short game, Mr. Ballesteros won the Masters twice and the British Open three times in a 10-year span. At Augusta National in 1980, he became the first European and, at 23, the youngest to win the Masters. (Tiger Woods broke that record in 1997 when he won it at 21.) Mr. Ballesteros won the Masters again in 1983, the British Open in 1979, '84 and '88, and the World Match Play Championship five times.

"I think he comes as close to a complete player as anybody I've ever seen," fellow golfer Ben Crenshaw told Sports Illustrated in 1985. "He can hit every shot in the bag and do it with the style and look of a champion."

Mr. Ballesteros won 45 events on the European Tour, and led it in earnings six times. He was in the vanguard of Spanish golfers, preceding Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia.

In Charlotte, N.C., at the Wells Fargo Championship, Phil Mickelson said Friday that beyond Mr. Ballesteros' impact on the game, "the greatest thing about Seve is his flair and his charisma.

"Because of the way he played the game of golf, you were drawn to him," said Mickelson, who shares Mr. Balle­steros' penchant for getting into and out of troublesome situations on the course. "You wanted to go watch him play."

"He was the greatest show on earth," said Nick Faldo, a six-time major winner.

Mr. Severiano Ballesteros (buy-yuh-STAY-ros) was born in Pedrena, where his father, a former national champion rower, was a farmer. His three older brothers were golf pros, as was his uncle.

He quit school at 14, turned pro at 16 and won his first major at the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England. On No. 16 in the final round, he made one of his most storied shots.

With his ball in a parking lot, he hit a sand wedge to the green, then sank a 20-footer for birdie and won by three shots, besting Nicklaus. But in this case, Mr. Balle­steros wasn't out of control on a drive. He deliberately hit to the parking lot to take advantage of the prevailing winds.

Apart from his individual feats, he led Europe's emergence in the Ryder Cup after players from the continent joined British and Irish players in 1979. He played on eight Ryder Cup squads, including the 1987 team that achieved the first European win in America.

Mr. Ballesteros was a master of concentration.

"I'm so deeply immersed in my game plan and my play that I'm virtually oblivious to outside sights and sounds," he wrote in his 1991 book, Natural Golf, written with John Andrisani.

Mr. Ballesteros' last major win came in the 1988 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the site of that memorable approach shot in the '79 event.

Holding the champion's silver cup aloft, he said, "This time I didn't hit from the parking lot."

He is survived by two sons and a daughter and his brothers. His marriage to Carmen Botin ended in divorce in 2004. His funeral is Wednesday in Pedrena.

Tight race at major

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Mark Calcavecchia shot 1-under 71 at the Regions Tradition, faltering with double bogey and two bogeys on the final eight holes, but still led after three rounds at the first Champions Tour major of the year. Calcavecchia was at 12-under 204 for a one-stroke lead over Jay Haas, who shot 68. Tom Pernice and Tom Lehman (both 68) were two back.

PGA: Jonathan Byrd had five birdies in six holes to start the back nine en route to 5-under 67 for a one-shot lead into the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C. Second-round leader Pat Perez (70) was second. Phil Mickelson (74) was eight back after hitting tee shots in the water on 15 and 17.

Quotebook

"No matter the golf that particular day, you always knew you were going to be entertained. Seve's enthusiasm was just unmatched by anybody I think that ever played the game. … He could get up and down out of a garbage can." — Jack Nicklaus

"He was a man who got into trouble (with his golf shots). Only for Seve, there was no such thing as trouble," Gary Player

"It's a day of sadness when you wake up with news like that. … It is a loss that we'll never get back due to all the values that Seve had." — Rafael Nadal, Spanish tennis champion

"His creativity and inventiveness on the golf course may never be surpassed." — Tiger Woods, on Twitter

"America had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Seve was our Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus rolled into one." — Bernard Gallacher, former captain of European Ryder Cup team

"He was magnetism. All the guys wanted to be him, and all of the girls wanted to be with him." — Peter Kessler, golf historian

Spain's Seve Ballesteros, golf legend, dies at age 54 05/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 10:41pm]

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