Commentary

A Mickelson-Ballesteros connection

Updated: May 7, 2011, 2:50 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Phil Mickelson has yet to save par from a parking lot this week, but three times he has done so after hitting into water.

It was not his intention, but what better tribute could there be to Seve Ballesteros than to turn the routine into the ridiculous and have it all appear routine again in the end?

Mickelson has long spoken of his admiration for Ballesteros, and he did so again Friday after moving into contention at the Wells Fargo Championship, where much of the discussion was not about birdies and bogeys but about the poor health of Ballesteros.

The Spanish golf star had been battling a brain tumor since 2008 and eventually succumbed to the disease on Saturday. He was 54.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIn classic Seve Ballesteros style, Phil Mickelson put himself in several difficult spots yet came out unscathed at Quail Hollow. Three times in two rounds Lefty hit shots into the water yet saved par.

It was Mickelson who had hoped the five-time major winner and two-time Masters champion could join him and the others who have won green jackets at this year's Champions Dinner, held on the Tuesday of Masters week.

Ballesteros' health did not permit such a journey from Spain, but Mickelson chose to honor him at the dinner anyway, serving a Spanish dish and making it clear how much Seve meant to him and the game.

Mickelson did so again Friday after shooting a 66 that left him 3 strokes behind tournament leader Pat Perez.

"[Seve] was the guy I wanted to play a practice round with the most," Mickelson said. "When I played my first PGA Tour event in San Diego in 1988, [former tour player] Ernie Gonzales arranged a practice round with him.

"From that day on, he couldn't have been nicer to me. We had a great round of golf. He showed me a few things, showed me a few shots, and ever since then we've had a good relationship for the last 23 years that I've known him. I have nothing but nice things to say about him."

Ballasteros' reputation was built on his ability to turn calamity into calm, to play the daring shot rather than the safe one. He made a habit of recovering from the unlikeliest of places, something to which Mickelson can relate.

Asked if he modeled his game after Ballesteros, Mickelson said: "Maybe ... not consciously. But I seem to put myself in a lot of the same spots.

"He's certainly had an impact on the game," Mickelson said. "But to me the greatest thing about Seve is his flair and charisma. Because of the way he played the game of golf, you were drawn to him. You wanted to go watch him play. He had charisma and he kind of had so many shots that it was fun to watch him play."

There are few remaining links to Ballesteros in today's game. Sergio Garcia, of course, looked up to him as a mentor. Davis Love, the current U.S. Ryder Cup captain, went up against the so-called "Spanish Armada" of Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal at his first Ryder cup in 1993.

"It was an exciting way to start my Ryder Cup career to play against Seve. It was incredible," Love said Friday at Quail Hollow. "He was an icon in the game. He was someone I looked up to and I copied his swing.

"Everybody wanted to be as exciting and as fun and as flashy as Seve. Everyone wanted to be aggressive and as flamboyant as Seve. Everyone wanted that style. He was definitely someone who I grew up idolizing and it was great I got to play against him some."

According to reports from the European Tour event in Barcelona, Spaniards Miguel Angel Jimenez and Olazabal were too distraught to speak about Ballesteros, Olazabal saying, "I can't talk. I can only wait, and cry."

Aside from Olazabal, there might be no one else in the game closer to Ballesteros than Garcia, who loved to mimic the star as child and who undoubtedly viewed his countryman as a hero.

"He was a game-changer not only for Europe but for golf itself," Garcia said. "He played differently. To be able to come out of Spain and do what he did was amazing. He was inspiring.

"Seve was a different player and that's why people watched him and loved him. He was big all over the world but in the UK it was amazing what the people think of Seve and how they supported him. To see the aura that was around him was amazing.''

Fittingly, Garcia eagled his first hole Friday. He was at 6 under through 36 holes, 6 shots behind Perez.

Ballesteros won 87 times around the world and played on eight Ryder Cup teams, winning 20 points in 37 matches. He also captained the 1997 Europe team to victory, the first time the event was played in Spain.

Two years later, Garcia made his Ryder Cup debut as a 19-year-old, and he's competed in every Ryder Cup since except for last year.

Mickelson has been there longer than that, having played in his first Ryder Cup in 1995. Sadly, that was the year when Ballesteros won his last professional title, at the Spanish Open being played this week.

He was just 39, and his game was leaving him at a relatively young age, even though he still managed to often produce the kind of magic we've come to see from Mickelson.

Three times during two rounds at Quail Hollow, Lefty hit a ball into the water and managed to still make a par, including at the par-4 14th on Friday. Mickelson rinsed his tee shot, then knocked his third-shot approach after a drop to 4 feet and made the par putt.

Seve undoubtedly would have smiled at that, but Phil's round Friday was very un-Phil- or Seve-like. Although he hit just six fairways -- after hitting only five Thursday -- Mickelson managed to hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation. He needed just 27 putts after taking only 23 the first day.

It's a good start for Mickelson after a three-week break following a disappointing Masters. He's posted five top-10s in seven previous appearances at Quail Hollow, including a runner-up to Rory McIlroy last year.

And yet on a day filled with concern for Ballesteros, it was Mickelson who provided the bright spot, a reminder of the kind of greatness Seve inspired.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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