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Presence of ailing Seve felt via letter

Thursday, April 09, 2009
By Scott Michaux
Columnist

In a Champions Dinner unlike any other, Seve Ballesteros carried the night from an ocean away.

Two-time Masters winner Seve Ballesteros, who is fighting a brain tumor, wrote a letter to his friends at the Champions Dinner.

(File)

On an emotional evening when Gary Player introduced fellow South African Trevor Immelman to the champions club and joined Fuzzy Zoeller in toasting goodbyes to their playing careers, it was a faxed letter from the two-time Spanish champion that moved the room in solemn respect.

Friend and fellow champion Jose Maria Olazabal read the note from his countryman, who celebrates his 52nd birthday today while fighting for his life against a brain tumor.

Ballesteros wrote that he wished he could be here, wished he could be with them, wished them the best and wished that the 2009 Masters winner would come from the group assembled in the Augusta National clubhouse for the dinner he had first presided over in 1981. He thanked them all for their thoughts and well wishes.

Those who have been privy to the Masters fraternity for years said it was an experience they won't forget.

"It was very emotional, very loving, and as it was read, you could feel in the air the reciprocation from his friends and former champions going all the way back to Spain," said Masters Tournament Chairman Billy Payne, who is an invited guest for the traditional dinner. "It was an amazing, amazing moment."

Arnold Palmer, the American icon whom Ballesteros is most often compared to as an influential figure in the game, said, "I think it was totally different. We've had players get sick or die, but not one of the guys fighting who is currently one of us. So that was a tough experience. I think everyone felt some emotion about it."

Three-time champion Player said, "The entire evening is one of the very best that I have ever experienced, and I've probably been at 48 of them. It was a wonderful letter that Seve wrote, and Jose read it out beautifully and with affection."

That Ballesteros would stir emotions at Augusta National is nothing new. He was the kind of competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve. His energy, charisma and swashbuckling style opened an era of European success in the majors and especially the Masters. He is being kept away from his "American home" as he undergoes his fourth round of chemotherapy on top of surgeries.

"This is the biggest battle of my life; this is the sixth major," he said in a recent interview in Spain. He calls the fact that he is still alive and fighting a "mulligan."

His peers appreciated his long-distance reach to the dinner table as much as they appreciate him.

"It was great to hear from Seve," said Bernhard Langer, a fellow two-time champion and longtime Ryder Cup teammate during Europe's rise to prominence. "It was a very emotional letter. He obviously misses being here, and he wished us well. Seve was a big part of this tournament, and hopefully he will be back next year. He's obviously a fighter, and he's doing all the right things to try and beat this."

Said Mark O'Meara: "It was very nice, very touching and very professional on Seve's part. It stated how much he misses being here, and he wished his fellow competitors good luck.

"(Today) is his birthday, and he's going to celebrate by watching the Masters on TV. He's having a tough go of it, but he's a great champion of worldwide golf, and he was a great champion here."

It is impossible to quantify how much Ballesteros means to golf and its growth as a global sport. He carried the game and the love of European fans with his passionate style. European rival and Ryder Cup partner Nick Faldo once called Ballesteros' style "Cirque du Soleil on golf."

"It was artistry and grace and everything," Faldo said.

That artistry was never better displayed than at Augusta National -- a stage seemingly made for his imaginative game. The old course before the changes didn't mandate control off the tee, but instead rewarded a magician's touch around the greens.

That was Seve's strength. He won his first green jacket as a 21-year-old in 1980 and another in 1983. He left a couple more dangling from the hanger.

Injuries and an inner struggle between his heart and his head forced him to reluctantly retire too soon in 2007. His mark on the game is indelible.

Seve returned in spirit to the Masters on Tuesday night. God willing, he will return in person next year and resume his seat at the table. Club willing, maybe he'll take a deserved place on the first tee with Palmer.

Felicidades y hasta siempre .

Happy birthday and see you forever.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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