MADRID — Golf great Seve Ballesteros has died. He was 54.
According to a statement on his website, Ballesteros died early Saturday surrounded by his family at his home in the northern Spanish town of Pedrena.
He had suffered “severe deterioration” in his recovery from a cancerous brain tumor, a development that brought some players to tears as they considered his massive effect on golf in Europe and around the world.
Ballesteros underwent four operations in late 2008, his family said on Friday.
Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez were visibly upset after the second round of the Spanish Open. Olazabal formed the indomitable “Spanish Armada” with Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup, where they lost only two matches. Jimenez was a vice captain under Ballesteros on Europe’s winning team in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama.
“We tried to talk to them after their rounds, but they couldn’t even speak because they were crying. They couldn’t even talk,” Spanish Open spokeswoman Maria Acacia Lopez-Bachiller told The Associated Press by telephone. “This had to be the saddest competition in terms of ambiance today. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The thought of Ballesteros in such grave condition was felt around the world, from the PGA Tour event in North Carolina, and especially at a Champions Tour event in Alabama, which featured players who competed against Ballesteros in his prime.
They witnessed his genius with a club in hand, which led Ballesteros to five majors, 50 wins on the European Tour and a spirit so fierce that many consider him the most important figure in European golf history.
“He did for European golf what Tiger Woods did for worldwide golf,” three-time major champion Nick Price said. “The European Tour would not be where it is today if not for Seve Ballesteros. The guy, he was an icon, just an incredible golfer. I always said most of us could shoot 65 about 30 to 40 different ways. He had about 10,000 ways of shooting 65.”
Paul Casey, who as a kid used to watch Ballesteros work his magic at Wentworth, choked back tears after his round at the Wells Fargo Championship on the PGA Tour.
“He really blazed the trail for Europeans,” said Casey, who was clearly upset after his round at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C. “Not only in the Ryder Cup, but also on the PGA Tour in how he played at Augusta and his victories over here. We owe a huge amount to him.”
Fanny Sunesson, the former caddie for Nick Faldo during some of those Ryder Cups, was asked her recollections and began to cry. “The tears say it all,” she said.
One of the biggest stars in Spain, even though golf was never a popular sport, news of his downturn transcended to other sports. Tennis star Rafael Nadal called Ballesteros “one of the greats of this country without a doubt, a reference point for all Spanish athletes.”
“Life can be cruel a lot of the time. … What he did in sport is unbelievable,” Nadal said at the Madrid Masters. “These are tough moments.”
Phil Mickelson honored Ballesteros by serving a Spanish dish at the Champions Dinner at the Masters this year. Mickelson recalled his first PGA Tour event as a teenager and the thrill of playing a practice round with Ballesteros.
“From that day on, he couldn’t have been nicer to me,” Mickelson said. “He showed me a few things, showed me a few shots, and ever since then, we’ve had a good relationship. … Because of the way he played the game, you were drawn to him.”
Ballesteros fainted at Madrid’s international airport while waiting to board a flight to Germany on Oct. 6, 2008, and was subsequently diagnosed with the brain tumor. One of his operations was a 6 1/2-hour procedure to remove the tumor and reduce swelling around the brain. After leaving the hospital, he had chemotherapy.
Sergio Garcia figured most people would not have survived long past the initial surgery.
“He was a game-changer, not only for Europe, but for golf itself when he came out,” Garcia said. “Obviously, there was Jack [Nicklaus] and Arnie [Arnold Palmer] and all those guys, but he played differently. To be able to come from Spain and do what he did, it was something amazing.”
Ballesteros played in his last Ryder Cup in 1995 at Oak Hill. In a singles match against Tom Lehman, he didn’t hit a single fairway on the front nine and was still in the match. He wound up losing on the 15th hole.
“Nobody could have done that,” Lehman said. “Nobody could have done it from the places that he hit it. It’s the best nine holes of golf I’ve ever seen, that front nine. He shot even par. I would have shot probably 9 over.
“I think his body language was the strongest of anybody, maybe save Tiger in recent years,” Lehman said. “I’ve always said that his body language said, ‘Hey, I may have hit a really crappy shot right there, but if you miss this next one, you’ll miss the greatest shot ever hit.’ That’s just the way he walked, the way he acted, the way he carried himself. He never seemed to ever doubt his ability.”
Those great shots came from a parking lot at Royal Lytham in 1979, from the lip of a bunker in the 1983 Ryder Cup, from just about anywhere on any golf course.
“He had a remarkable effect on us,” Padraig Harrington said. “That’s why we wanted to play golf.”
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 has been 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 through work with his Seve Ballesteros Foundation to fight cancer.
After lobbying to have the Ryder Cup expanded to include continental Europe in 1979, Ballesteros helped beat the United States in 1985 to begin two decades of dominance.
Ballesteros retired in 2007 because of a long history of back pain, turning his focus to golf course design.