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Spanish Golf Champion Seve Ballesteros Dies at Home, Age 54

Ballesteros Wins the First of His Three British Opens
Ballesteros holds the trophy after winning the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire in July 1979. Photographer: Steve Powell/Getty Images

Severiano Ballesteros, Europe’s most successful golfer, has died at his home in Pedrena, Spain, his family said. He was 54.

Spanish-born Ballesteros, known as Seve, won five major events: the British Open three times and the Masters Tournament twice. He amassed 87 titles worldwide, including a record 48 on the European Tour, collecting 5.3 million euros ($7.6 million) in winnings.

Ballesteros died at 2:10 a.m. today, his family said in a statement on his website, a day after announcing that his condition had worsened. The funeral will be held May 11 in Pedrena.

“Seve was one of the most talented and exciting golfers to ever play the game,” 14-time major champion Tiger Woods said on his website. “His creativity and inventiveness on the golf course may never be surpassed. His death came much too soon.”

Ballesteros was diagnosed with a brain tumor after collapsing at Madrid airport in 2008 as he was about to board a flight to Germany. He underwent four operations at the end of that year and began chemotherapy treatments after being released from Madrid’s La Paz hospital. After chemotherapy, he returned to public life in 2009 and made several appearances to promote his charity that funds brain tumor research.

‘Very Special’

He played in the Ryder Cup against the U.S. eight times, winning three, and captained the victorious European team in 1997. Last year, Colin Montgomerie gathered his team to call Ballesteros, who was too ill to attend, in preparation for their successful attempt to win back the cup at Celtic Manor in Wales.

“All moments with him have been pleasant and very special,” Jose Maria Olazabal, who teamed with Ballesteros as the most successful pairing in Ryder Cup history, told EFE newswire. “From his personality, I’d point out his strength, his passion for all he did, his fight spirit and, of course, his unlimited passion for golf.”

Olazabal, who will captain the European Ryder Cup team next year, was in tears before teeing off in today’s third round of the Spanish Open in Barcelona, the Associated Press reported. Players are wearing black ribbons in Ballesteros’s memory, while a minute’s silence was held and flags are at half-mast.

‘Player of Century’

“This is such a very sad day for all who love golf,” George O’Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, said on the tour’s 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. He was the inspiration behind the European Tour.”

In 2000, Ballesteros was voted European Player of the Century. The region’s leading money-winner six times, he ended his 33-year playing career in July 2007, a week after saying he suffered heart palpitations. Since then, he devoted his time to a golf-course design business, a company that organized the Seve Trophy -- now known as the Vivendi Trophy -- on the European Tour and a venture that provided motivational coaching.

“He was a hero of mine,” World No. 1 golfer Lee Westwood told Sky News. “I grew up watching him play this flamboyant style of golf and he became an inspiration.”

Ballesteros was born on April 9, 1957, in Pedrena, a village on the Bay of Santander in northern Spain. He started playing golf aged 7 on a beach. With only an old 3-iron, he learned to chip, pitch and even make bunker shots. He was renowned among golfers and fans as one of the best wedge players in the history of the game.

Open Winner

He came to prominence aged 19 in 1976 when he led the British Open for three rounds in only his second appearance at the oldest golf tournament before losing to Johnny Miller.

Three years later, he won the Open, making him the first player from continental Europe since Frenchman Arnaud Massy in 1907 to triumph there. He twice repeated the feat, at St. Andrews in 1984, and at Lytham, the site of his first success, four years later. He won the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, in 1980 and 1983.

“Seve was one of the brightest lights of our game and was an inspiration to millions, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, said on the British Open website. “The game has lost one of the greats. It is a very sad day for golf.”

Ballesteros and Sam Snead, who won a record 82 tournaments on the U.S. PGA Tour, were the two most naturally talented golfers the game has ever seen, said Peter Thomson, the last man to win the British Open three times in a row.

Missed Cut

An arthritic back prevented Ballesteros, who won his last European Tour title in 1995, from appearing in a stroke-play event between November 2003 and October 2005. The two-year hiatus ended at the Madrid Open.

His comeback was short-lived as he played twice in 2006, missing the cut at the British Open and at the French Open. In his only Champions Tour outing in the U.S., he finished tied for 77th place at the Regions Charity Classic at Birmingham, Alabama. His sole other appearance before retiring was at the 2007 Masters, where he missed the cut.

At this year’s Masters, Phil Mickelson, the 2010 winner, served a Spanish-themed meal at the annual champions dinner to honor Ballesteros, who couldn’t attend.

Before his comeback in 2005, Ballesteros made the halfway cut in five of 37 European Tour tournaments, earning just 35,000 euros in his last three active years on the circuit.

Team Captain

Ballesteros first played at the Ryder Cup in 1979 and went on to become the fourth-highest point scorer in the European team’s history, behind Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Montgomerie. He captained the team when it retained the most prestigious team title in golf at Valderrama, Spain, in 1997.

Though he didn’t attend the 2010 event at Celtic Manor in Wales, Ballesteros helped inspire Europe to a 14½ to 13½ victory over the U.S. by speaking to the team by telephone.

“It was extremely special to talk to him, all of us, and to listen to his voice and listen to him give us some good cheer and good advice,” Europe vice-captain Sergio Garcia said of his countryman. “It was the perfect way to start the Ryder Cup.”

Ballesteros had two sons and a daughter with his wife, Carmen. Their marriage ended in divorce.

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