Commentary

Well-wishes come from far and wide as Ballesteros battles brain cancer

Originally Published: October 24, 2008
By Brian Doogan | Special to ESPN.com

For Maria Acacia, the press officer at the European Tour's season-ending Volvo Masters, it has been an emotional few weeks.

Master Ryder

Seve Ballesteros is one of the greatest Ryder Cup players in the history of the event.

Most Ryder Cup matches won
Golfer Team Wins
Nick Faldo Europe 23
Arnold Palmer U.S. 22
Bernhard Langer Europe 21
Seve Ballesteros Europe 20*
Colin Montgomerie Europe 20
Billy Casper U.S. 20
Lanny Wadkins U.S. 20
*20-12-5 record
"I have taken phone calls from every radio station in Spain, even in the villages, asking for news, wishing to know if there has been improvement or otherwise," she said. "The amount of people who care for Seve Ballesteros is extraordinary."

The depth of that feeling is most apparent at Club de Campo del Mediterráneo, which is hosting this week's European Tour event.

Justin Rose, who won three points out of a possible four at last month's Ryder Cup -- the competition which best defined Ballesteros -- summed up the mood of the players after completing his second round in Castellón, Spain.

"Everyone is keeping a very close eye on the situation and wishing Seve all the best," Rose said. "I haven't heard any more today, but we are all wishing him and his family well. I know everyone here is thinking of him."

At the precise moment of Rose's well-wishes, Ballesteros was undergoing surgery for the third time at La Paz hospital in Madrid, having been diagnosed with a brain tumor which has been confirmed as cancerous.

"In the operation they will work on the edema and the intracerebral haematoma that has developed in the past few hours and they will increase the removal of the remains of the tumor," a hospital statement read. "The tumor has been classified as an oligoastrocytoma [which affects the cells which cover and protect the nervous-system cells in the brain and the spinal cord] and is located in a very deep area which makes it very complicated to reach."

The warning was grim, almost impossible to reconcile with those magical memories of the maestro in his heyday.

"Seve played in a different way, more with the heart than the real game, and he was my inspiration," said Spain's Alvaro Quiros after winning last week's Portugal Masters. "When you think about it, you have two ways to make a birdie: the easy way, which is driver, green and one putt, and the other is one drive -- don't know where -- a chip and a good putt. That's how I played at Vilamoura, and Seve sometimes had rounds like that."

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Too many times to mention, his modus operandi often seemed to be a personal challenge to extricate himself from impossible situations. Trees, bunkers, walls and even car parks were only in the way to test his genius.

People realized they were witnessing something extraordinary whenever the dashing, slashing Spaniard stepped out on a golf course. Players like Rose and Quiros, who were not even born when Ballesteros won the Open Championship in 1979 at Royal Lytham, owe him a debt of gratitude. Without Seve, there would be no European Tour today as we know it.

"Without wishing to seem arrogant, I think that my victory in the Masters in 1980 was crucial for European golf because my fellow players saw that the door to America had opened up for them," Ballesteros wrote in his autobiography. "I'm sure that players who had beaten me on the European Tour told themselves, 'Well, if Seve can do it, so can I.' "

So the likes of Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal became emboldened, and the European Tour thrived. Heavily reinforced at the same time by European success in the Ryder Cup, which had been in danger of petering out because of America's superiority over Great Britain and Ireland, Seve inspired a revolution in the game.

"Seve is the Arnold Palmer of Europe, a fantastic man, a great ambassador for the game. The crowd loves him, and he has done so much," said Sam Torrance, captain of Europe's winning team at the 2002 Ryder Cup.

"Without Seve's personal success, this tour wouldn't be what it is today," said Colin Montgomerie, a record eight-time winner of Europe's Order of Merit.

Ballesteros' main reason for opting to play on the European Tour was straightforward.

"Some people have claimed that I opted to play in Europe more than in the United States because I received appearance fees from the European Tour. This is not true," Seve said in his autobiography. "The basic reason was that I felt more at ease in Europe. It is the environment I am familiar with. My family and friends live here and the general public, particularly in Britain, have always acted warmly towards me."

Ballesteros, the five-time major champion, earned a unique place in the hearts of the British sporting public because of the sheer audacity of his play. Ballesteros was 19 in 1976 when he led the British Open at Royal Birkdale going into the final round. Although he finished six strokes behind the winner, Johnny Miller, the shot he played from the right of the 18th green between two bunkers to a pin just a few yards on ignited a roar that might have been for the champion. It was sensational, but far from his only grand moment during his reign over European golf.

"I had my deepest emotional experience in my golfing life when I played [and won] the 1984 Open at the cradle of golf, the Old Course at St Andrews," Ballesteros said in his autobiography. "The putt [on the final green] had a clear borrow to the left but, as I struck the ball, I felt I had overdone it. I hadn't. It rolled sweetly towards the hole, then seemed to hover on the edge of the cup before finally going in as if in slow motion, perhaps impelled by my powers of mental suggestion, so strong was my desire that it should drop in."

His fist-pumping salute, which greeted his triumph over Tom Watson, is one of the enduring and iconic images of golf.

The four-iron which he struck into Rae's Creek on the 15th hole of the Masters in 1986 precipitated the heartbreaking unraveling of his game. He won three more Order of Merits, another British Open and more tournaments, but his invincible aura had gone. Gradually, his body broke down, until finally he was unable to practice during daylight hours, so embarrassed had he become about his inability to strike the ball in his inimitably assured way.

"Seve was simply the most charismatic player in international golf from the mid- to late 1970s until the mid-1990s," said Peter Allis, the voice of golf in Europe. "He captivated audiences with his devil-may-care, swashbuckling style and his cavalier approach. He was a conjurer, a man of magic, a fierce competitor and a fighter. For 20 years and more, he was brilliant to watch."

The spectacle has evolved into a vigil now, and a life once so vibrant rests at La Paz hospital, where the anxious eyes of everybody who loves golf in Europe are turned.

Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for the London Sunday Times.

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