Golf Great Seve Ballesteros Dies at 54

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AP Photo / Rob Carr, File

In this May 18, 2007 file photo, Seve Ballesteros smiles before teeing off at a golf tournament in Hoover, Ala.

One of golf’s most beloved and inspirational players, the Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, has passed away at the age of 54, after a protracted battle with cancer.

He burst onto the international scene in 1976 and quickly proceeded to capture the hearts of golf fans the world over, with his swashbuckling, swaggering style, unafraid to look a risky shot in the eye and go for glory (the hole) rather than the safe percentage shot (the green). Even more thrillingly, his approach (if you excuse the pun) transformed the sport with his fellow players often inspired to play the game in a similar manner, though, of course, there was only one Seve.

PHOTOS: Seve Ballesteros 1957-2011 – A Spanish Master

What’s more, this exciting ethos didn’t just pay off with admiration from his peers and fans but, crucially important in this most individual of sports, the winning of trophies. In total, he amassed a staggering 87 over the course of his career, including five majors.

Appropriately, his first major was the British Open in 1979. Three years earlier, he had led for the first three days before eventually falling to the more experienced Johnny Miller, but still creditably coming joint second alongside Jack Nicklaus. But he wouldn’t be denied and, at 22, was the youngest winner of the Open in the 20th century. And if you wanted to sum up his style, then the drama of the 16th hole told you everything you needed to know. Most players took an iron off the tee for safety, but Seve went with a driver. And despite slapping the shot into a temporary car park, he got out of trouble for an eventual birdie and ended up winning by three shots.

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Seve would win the Open twice more (1984, 1988) with the ’84 success synonymous with his clenched fist celebration after holing his final birdie putt (the fact that it took place at the home of golf, St. Andrews, just made it even more magical). Two victories at the Masters in Augusta (and he was the youngest winner of that too at the age of 23 in 1980) and a ranking as the number one golfer in the world would have easily cemented his place as one of the legends of the game but when you talk Seve Ballesteros, you have to talk Ryder Cup as well.

Seve simply loved the bi-annual battle between the U.S. and Europe (when he made his debut in 1979, players from continental Europe had just been added to the Great Britain and Ireland side for the first time). There was also a rocky start, of sorts. He was left out of the 1981 Ryder Cup and had to be talked back into playing by new captain Tony Jacklin in 1983. Thank goodness for the conversation as Seve amassed an awesome 20 points from 37 matches across eight Ryder Cups and formed a blistering partnership with compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal (the Spanish duo’s 12 points still makes them the most successful pairing in history.)

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But winning Ryder Cup’s as a player wasn’t enough. He wanted to mastermind victory as a captain too. Poignantly, that was his role for the first Ryder Cup held on Spanish soil in 1997 and he led the Europeans to a magnificent victory at Valderrama. By then, he’d pretty much stopped playing on a regular basis and then, tragically, had to deal with the “hardest challenge of my life,” after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008 after losing consciousness at Madrid Airport.

But through the pain, he would have surely been able to enjoy Europe’s most recent Ryder Cup victory, in Wales last year. While he was unable to attend, he still managed to deliver an emotional address on the eve of the Ryder Cup (“Go get them so hard that they’ll all be caddies in the future,” he reportedly said) and the team dedicated their dramatic one-point victory to Seve. Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, who clinched the win, said: “Coming down the final hole I was thinking about my team-mates, I was thinking about Monty (captain Colin Montgomerie) and the fans – and I was also thinking about Seve. This win is most definitely for him.”

He will never be forgotten and the European Tour had a minute’s silence during Saturday’s third round of its latest tournament. The event? The Spanish Open. As with everything to do with Seve Ballesteros, his life and death was all about timing.