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Ballesteros honoured ahead of Masters

AUGUSTA, April 5- On the verge of a wide-open Masters that Seve Ballesteros would have loved, the Spanish golf legend was honored in the Champions Dinner menu selections of defending champion Phil Mickelson.

Ballesteros, a flamboyant five-time major winner who turns 54 on Saturday, is unable to travel because of a brain tumor, so he will miss the Tuesday night affair that Mickelson has dedicated to him with Spanish selections.

"Our thoughts and prayers are going to be with him," Mickelson said.

Mickelson’s Spanish-themed menu includes seafood paella, beef tenderloin with Machango cheese, a Spanish omelette and Spanish Apple Pie.

"I wanted to kind of honor him," Mickelson said. "I just sent him an e-mail saying that if he were able to come and feeling healthy enough to make this tournament, I would love to have the dinner be something that he would like, like a Spanish dish of paella or whatever he thought would be appropriate."

Mickelson, who made a Seve-like shot from atop pine straw behind a tree onto the 13th green in last year’s final round, compared his thrill at driving onto Magnolia Lane to that of watching Ballesteros win the 1980 Masters.

"It reminds me of when I was 10 years old watching Seve Ballesteros win in 1980 and saying to my mom, ‘I want to win that tournament. I want to be like that,’" Mickelson said.

In many ways, the five European players ranked with Mickelson among the world’s top six are part of the legacy of Ballesteros, whose 1980 Masters victory was the first by a European golfer at Augusta National.

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"He opened a lot of doors for European players when he went to the States and won the Masters that first time," said two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain. "We started to believe we could follow in his footsteps."

Now Germany’s Martin Kaymer is world number one after winning last year’s PGA Championship and England’s Lee Westwood, still seeking his first major title after a Masters runner-up showing last year, is ranked second.

World No. 3 Mickelson, who won last weekend at Houston for his first title since last year’s Masters victory, is followed by England’s Luke Donald, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the reigning US Open champion, and England’s Paul Casey.

But no European has won at Augusta National since Olazabal in 1999.

World No. 7 Tiger Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, has not won since a sex scandal that began in November of 2009 and led to a divorce and an end to his iconic image.

Woods praised Augusta National as being in great condition and said he is where he wants to be in his preparation for the Masters.

"It’s all part of a process," Woods said. "I’m building toward something and getting closer to where I want to be."

Sprinkle in a confident set of young talents such as Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa and American Rickie Fowler and US veterans still seeking their first major crown and the stage is set for an epic green jacket battle.

Except for Casey, any of the top seven can claim the world number one spot by winning the Masters, with Mickelson, Donald and McDowell having never been atop the rankings. These days, anyone’s stay at the top could be a short one.

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"It’s tough to take a hold on that top spot and hold it," Fowler said. "It takes a lot to get out there and dominate. It just shows how deep golf is right now.

"Phil is obviously playing well. He’s going to get a lot of confidence out of that (victory)… Tiger is struggling but I don’t doubt he will come back."

Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa, who will donate his season’s prize money to relief efforts for last month’s earthquake and tsunami disaster in his homeland, is dedicating his Masters efforts to the people of Japan.

"I would like to emphasize the power and energy that sports can create for those people to encourage them," Ishikawa said. "It’s my intention to play really well, that it will be the best way to encourage people in Japan."

Ballesteros, who has suffered with the brain tumor since 2008, won five majors and 87 global titles with an unmatched flair and he was denied a third Masters crown in 1986 only when he sent a 4-iron into the water at the 15th and Nicklaus rallied to win his sixth Masters at age 46.

Among 20 first-time Masters players are Fowler and India’s Arjun Atwal, who won last year’s Wyndham Championship to regain his PGA playing rights and book a trip to his first Masters. At age 38 he is living out "a total fantasy" honed on satellite television broadcasts watched in India as a youth.

"I probably know every hole from watching it on TV," Atwal said.

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