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Seve Ballesteros gave golf a gift of excellence

While joyful noises were leaping from Phil Mickelson's gallery as he stormed around Quail Hollow Club in the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship Friday morning, dark news hummed across the Atlantic.

Seve Ballesteros' family issued a statement that said, "The family of Seve Ballesteros can report a severe deterioration in his neurological condition."

No more information was offered, but the fact that the statement was issued suggested that the great Spanish champion was losing his match with the brain tumor that has stolen his health and the holes are running out.

At midday, a rumor that Ballesteros had died swept around the clubhouse, but it was not confirmed.

Seve was a beautiful man born to play a beautiful game. He was handsome, funny, daring, fiery and gifted with both power and imagination.

He was one of the best of all time. He won 88 titles around the world, including three British Opens and two Augusta Masters, and you could not be bored watching him play. Could not. He was Mickelson before Mickelson became today's thriller who sprays tee shots around and magically turns them into birdies.

Seve could get sniffy at times when someone mentioned his wayward shots in a news conference but as good as he was, it was his deft scrambling that captivated the people.

When he won his first British Open, Seve didn't hit a fairway in the first round until the 14th hole, "driving the ball prodigious distances to out of the way places" as one British scribe wrote, but shot 65.

For the week, he hit nine fairways, once driving into what the Brit described as "unidentifiable flora" and once hitting a 2-iron "that wanted to go to Ireland." It was in that Open that he famously made a birdie from the parking lot.

"I don't aim for the rough," Seve said, "it just goes there. My caddie tells me to close my eyes and hit it and maybe it goes in the fairway."

Seve, who is 54, grew up on a farm. When he was 9 , he acquired a 3-iron and he would sneak onto the course in the early morning and late afternoon to play, playing every shot with that 3-iron, and putting it in the barn at night. That's where his magical short game came from.

His brother Manuel said, "Seve had a love of golf you could almost touch. Without a golf club in his hand, he was a man with no legs. It was part of him. Without it, he did not exist. You never saw him without a golf club."

We didn't get to see as much of Seve in this country as we would have liked. The PGA Tour required him to play a minimum of 15 events in the U.S. each year, but he chose to play fewer, devoting most of his play to the European Tour. He never got his membership here, which meant he was eligible for only a few appearances in this country.

The PGA should have shredded that rule, sent a private jet and a limo for him. You only get one of him in a lifetime.

Troubled by back and knee problems, Ballesteros announced his retirement from golf in 2007, and then the tumor struck him down. He had four operations and several courses of chemotherapy as his health kept slipping away.

Mickelson, the master scrambler himself, has an affection for Ballesteros and he expressed it at the Masters this year. As defending champion, he could choose the menu for the annual champions' dinner. He chose Spanish food, he said, to let Seve know he was being missed but not forgotten. Ballesteros couldn't be there, but he got the message.

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