Golf legend Seve Ballesteros dies

Seve Ballesteros, a five-time major champion whose passion and gift for imaginative shot-making invigorated European golf and the Ryder Cup, has died from complications of a cancerous brain tumor. He was 54.

A statement on Ballesteros’ website early Saturday said the golf great died peacefully at 2:10 a.m. local time, surrounded by his family at his home in Pedrena, in northern Spain.

Ballesteros, a two-time Masters champion and three-time winner of the British Open, was as inspirational in Europe as Arnold Palmer was in America, a handsome figure who feared no shot and often played from where no golfer had ever been.

Headlines such as ”The Inventor of Spanish golf” and ”Life of a Legend” were splashed across Spanish media websites as fellow golfers, athletes and figures from around the world paid tribute.

George O’Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour, said Ballesteros was the inspiration behind the tour.

”This is such a very sad day for all who love golf,” O’Grady said on the tour website.

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

Spanish golf federation president Gonzaga Escauriaza said Ballesteros, an ”icon” of Spanish golf, transformed the sport.

”Severiano Ballesteros was a unique, unrepeatable person,” Escauriaza said. ”We have to recognize we are where we are now, that golf is a popular sport … in large part to Severiano Ballesteros. We all owe him a lot.”

No. 1-ranked Lee Westwood wrote on Twitter: ”It’s a sad day. Lost an inspiration, genius, roll model, hero and friend. Seve made European golf what it is today. RIP Seve.”

In a long list of spectacular shots, perhaps the most memorable came from a parking lot next to the 16th fairway at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the 1979 British Open. Leading by two shots in the final round, he drove his ball into the lot, had a car removed to get his free drop, then fired his second shot to 15 feet and made birdie on his way to his first major.

”He was a man who got into trouble. Only for Seve, there was no such thing as trouble,” Gary Player once said. ”He could manufacture shots like a genius.”

His last challenge came from an unbeatable foe — cancer.

Ballesteros fainted in a Madrid airport while waiting to board a flight to Germany on Oct. 6, 2008, and was subsequently diagnosed with the brain tumor. He underwent four separate operations, including a 6 1/2-hour procedure to remove the tumor and reduce swelling around the brain. After leaving the hospital, his treatment continued with chemotherapy.

Ballesteros looked thin and pale while making several public appearances in 2009 after being given what he referred to as the ”mulligan of my life.” He rarely was seen in public since March 2010, when he fell off a golf cart and hit his head on the ground.

His few appearances or public statements were usually in connection with his Seve Ballesteros Foundation to fight cancer. He wanted but was unable to take part in a champions exhibition at St. Andrews in the British Open.

Such was his stature, even out of the public eye, that European players celebrated his most recent birthday — the Saturday of the Masters — as if it were a national holiday.

For such greatness, his career was relatively short because of back injuries.

Ballesteros won a record 50 times on the European tour, his first as a 19-year-old in the Dutch Open, his last when he was 38 at the 1995 Peugeot Open in his native Spain. That also was his last year playing in the Ryder Cup, where he had a 20-12-5 record in eight appearances. He was captain in 1997 when Europe won at Valderrama.

”He did for European golf what Tiger Woods did for worldwide golf. The European Tour would not be where it is today if not for Seve Ballesteros,” Nick Price, whose brother died from the same problem last year, said from a Champions Tour event in Alabama. ”His allegiance to the European Tour was admirable. The guy, he was an icon, just an incredible golfer.”

Ballesteros was the reason the Ryder Cup was expanded in 1979 to include continental Europe, and it finally beat the United States in 1985 to begin more than two decades of dominance. While others have played in more matches and won more points, no player better represents the spirit and desire of Europe than Ballesteros.

Mark Calcavecchia, winner of the British Open in 1989, was awed by some of the shots Ballesteros produced.

”The best imagination. The best short game. You never really knew where he was going to hit it,” he said.

”I think I played him twice in the Ryder Cup. I’m pretty sure I never beat him in a match. He was certainly awesome, and really very charismatic.”

Ballesteros announced his retirement in a tearful press conference at Carnoustie before the 2007 British Open. Ballesteros had returned to Augusta National that year to play the Masters one last time, but shot 86-80 to finish last. After turning 50, he tried one Champions Tour event, but again came in last.

His back was ailing, his eyes were no longer as lively, and his best game had left him years earlier.

”I don’t have the desire,” said Ballesteros, who remained active in golf after he stopped playing regularly, mainly through golf course design.

His desire was as big a part of his game as any shot he manufactured from the trees, the sand — just about anywhere.

Born April 9, 1957 in the tiny town of Pedrena, Spain, he learned golf with only one club — a 3-iron — that forced him to create shots most players could never imagine.

Ballesteros first gained major notoriety at 19 in the final round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale, where he threaded a shot through the bunkers and onto the green at the 18th hole, finishing second to Johnny Miller and in a tie with Jack Nicklaus.

”He invented shots around the green,” Nicklaus said in the weeks before Ballesteros was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999. ”You don’t find many big hitters like him with that kind of imagination and touch around the green. He’s been a big inspiration to golf in continental Europe, more than anyone has.”

Ballesteros went on to win the Order of Merit on the European tour that year, the first of six such titles. Two years later, he won the first time he teed it up in America, a one-shot victory at the Greater Greensboro Open.

Partly because of his humble roots, partly because of his Spanish blood, Ballesteros always played as though he had something to prove. Even after some called him ”Car Park Champion” for his shot at Lytham when he won the 1979 British Open, the Spaniard showed that was no fluke when he arrived at Augusta National the next year.

He obliterated the field in the 1980 Masters, much like Tiger Woods did in 1997. Applying his genius to a course built for imagination, Ballesteros took a seven-shot lead into the final round and led by 10 at one point until he started spraying tee shots and won by four. Even so, at 23 he was the youngest Masters champion until Woods won at age 21.

Ballesteros won the Masters again in 1983, and he was equally dominant in golf’s oldest championship. He won the British Open in 1984 at St. Andrews over Tom Watson, then won again at Lytham in 1988 by closing with a 65 — the best score of the tournament — to beat Price and Nick Faldo.

His career was marked by nasty disputes with European tour officials and PGA Tour officials. He quit the European tour in 1981 in a disagreement over appearance money, the only year he missed the Ryder Cup. He became angry with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman in 1985 for not playing the required 15 events for membership.

Despite his five majors and 87 titles around the world, Ballesteros forever will be linked to the Ryder Cup. He developed an ”us against them” attitude that became infectious with what had been an inferior European team. He made his teammates believe.

Ballesteros was headed for defeat in 1983 at PGA National, his ball beneath the lip of a bunker, some 245 yards from the green, when he lashed a 3-wood to the fringe and escaped with a halve against Fuzzy Zoeller. The Americans narrowly won, but the Ryder Cup was never the same after that year — and perhaps after that shot.

”His desire to beat the Americans was paramount, and probably the reason they beat us,” Watson said. ”The Ryder Cup became the focus of world golf, and Seve was right there as the leader.”

He teamed with Jose Maria Olazabal to become the most formidable partnership in Ryder Cup history, producing an 11-2-2 record. In his final Ryder Cup, at Oak Hill in 1995, he was playing a singles match against Tom Lehman when Ballesteros drove wildly to the right.

A TV commentator said his only two choices were to pitch back to the fairway or play a big hook around a massive tree. Ballesteros studied his options, then hit over the tree to the front of the green.

Such was the unpredictable nature of Ballesteros. There have not been many like him, if any at all.

”Seve is a genius, one of the few geniuses in the game,” Ben Crenshaw once said. ”The thing is, Seve is never in trouble. He’s in the trees quite a lot, but that’s not trouble for him. That’s normal.”

On Friday at the Spanish Open, Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez — good friends of Ballesteros’ — were in tears as they came off the El Prat golf course upon learning of Ballesteros’ deteriorating state. Olazabal and Ballesteros combined to form one of the greatest Ryder Cup pairs in history.

”What he did in sport is unbelievable,” top-ranked tennis player Rafael Nadal said on Friday. ”These are tough moments.”

Ballesteros and his wife Carmen divorced in 2004. They had three children together.