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Seve won't be at Augusta, but memories fill the void

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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As has sadly been the case since 2007, when he made the last of 28 Masters appearances, the stricken Seve Ballesteros will be absent this week when golf makes its annual pilgrimage to Augusta, Ga.

Absent but not forgotten, that is. How could he be? Anyone lucky enough to have seen the most charismatic, exciting and historically significant European player of the last half-century is sure to recall the dashing Spaniard -- who was struck by a brain tumor in 2008 and will turn 54 on the Saturday of the tournament -- as he swashbuckled his way to five major championship victories and a record 50 European Tour wins amid a worldwide total of 87.

The included two Masters victories, in 1980 and 1983.

The standard bearer for a generation of European stars who brought an end to a long era of American domination at the highest level of the game, Ballesteros at times reached heights attained only by true genius. Which is surely why the dark-haired little boy who grew up hitting pebbles with a stick on the vast sandy beach near his home village of Pedrena on Spain's northern coast played golf in a way that was about more than numbers on scorecards.

In stark contrast to the more pedestrian style of his great rival and direct contemporary, Nick Faldo, Ballesteros was a golfing artist for whom the creation of unlikely shots was an obligation and necessity. Where Faldo was admired for his results, Ballesteros was loved and revered for his uninhibited passion.

The greatest shot the greatest golfer of all time ever saw was hit by Ballesteros, a towering and massively sliced 3-wood from under the lip of a fairway bunker on the 18th hole at PGA National in Florida during the 1983 Ryder Cup. It was enough to give Ballesteros a half with Fuzzy Zoeller and Jack Nicklaus the memory of a peerless golfing lifetime.

Almost everyone has a favorite "Seve moment" in his or her mental lockers. From the moment he burst upon the international stage with his runner-up spot behind Johnny Miller in the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale, Ballesteros provided a vivid array of shots that linger forever in the mind's eye.

Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy is but one devoted Seve fan.

When the Australian visited Royal Lytham for the first time as a young amateur, he went straight to the left side of the 18th green. It was from there, in 1988, that Ballesteros conjured a magically delicate running chip, one that softly kissed the edge of the cup before expiring only inches away. Moments later, he tapped in for what would be his fifth and final Grand Slam victory.

"I just had to see the spot where he had been," remembers Ogilvy. "I had played that shot in my mind so often."

But Ogilvy's is only one of a host of unforgettable images. As an unknown 19-year-old at the Open in '76, Seve executed an imaginative chip-and-run between two greenside bunkers to set up one last birdie on the 72nd hole. At home in Texas, no less a shot maker than Lee Trevino -- twice an Open champion -- leapt from his armchair in unrestrained admiration at the youngster's nerve, audacity and touch.

Eight years later, Ballesteros was at it again, on the 72nd green at St. Andrews, the Home of Golf. Ten feet from the cup in two shots and needing to hole it for almost certain victory over his only remaining rival, Tom Watson, Seve made the putt to clinch his second Claret Jug as only he could. Two feet from the hole, the ball was missing on the topside. Even one foot away it looked like staying above ground. The great man had allowed too much borrow. But, at the last moment -- as if guided by a higher power -- the ball toppled into the cup, setting off perhaps the most memorable celebration in the history of golf's oldest event.

As the ball disappeared, every single member of the huge crowd spontaneously rose as Ballesteros broke into a sustained punching of the air, images that defined his attitude to both the game he played and the people he sought to entertain. Again and again his arm swept skyward, his expressive face alive with the sheer excitement of the moment, the connection between player and spectator almost palpable.

It wasn't all success though. Not surprisingly for one who so often veered close to the edge of disaster, Ballesteros was not renowned for consistent straightness in his shot making. The most damaging swing of his career came at Augusta National on the 15th hole of the final round in the 1986 Masters. With an embarrassingly fat 4-iron Seve found water rather than land. Had he done the opposite, it would surely have been the Spaniard rather than Nicklaus who would later win what was perhaps the greatest-ever Masters.

Still, for all his heroics in golf's four most important events, Ballesteros' play in the Ryder Cup provided even more distinguishing moments. On and off the course, his air of supreme confidence more than anything epitomized the previously unimaginable sense that the mighty Americans could be beaten.

"Seve was unbelievable," says Scotland's Sam Torrance, eight times a Ryder Cup player. "Of course, he didn't much like the Americans. He really wanted to win."

And he did, in a special way that was beyond the ken of all but the chosen few. As we Scots like to say of an honored guest, "Haste ye back Seve."

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