Olazabal sets out his Ryder Cup stall
JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL put it best: "The Ryder Cup is welded to my heart," said the 44-year-old Spaniard yesterday, as his appointment as European captain for the 2012 matches in Chicago was officially announced in Abu Dhabi.
When it came to playing against the United States, he and Seve Ballesteros shared the same soul. Seve was the first man Olazabal phoned last Friday with news of his decision to lead Europe into action at Medinah. And despite the ravages of chemotherapy, Ballesteros, as ever, made his protégé laugh as they kicked over the embers of past Ryder Cups.
Olazabal was still smiling yesterday as he recalled their discussion of one of the most zany episodes of Seve's captaincy at Valderrama in 1997, when the skipper had hotel staff push well apart the beds of players who were sharing with wives or partners that week on the Costa del Sol. Ballesteros has always been blessed with a wicked sense of humour, but he still wouldn't leave any bed unturned in his bid for victory over Tom Kite and a star-studded US team.
Olazabal sheepishly declined to expand any further ... though his recall was total when it came to his Ryder Cup debut alongside Ballesteros at Muirfield Village in 1987. The rookie, then just 21, was shaking like a leaf inside as he and Ballesteros walked from the putting green to the first tee for their Friday morning foursomes encounter with American idols Larry Nelson and Payne Stewart.
"I remember very clearly what Seve said to me as we walked along," Olazabal recounted. "'Just try to play your game, enjoy the moment and I'll take care of the rest.'"
This sentence gave the true measure of Seve's confidence, strength of character and role as a dominating force in the Ryder Cup arena. He and Olazabal won by one hole, claiming the first of three points out of four together that weekend as they laid the foundation for Europe's first victory on US soil and established a formidable partnership which would lose just once in 15 Ryder Cup sortees.
Olazabal would not remain a junior partner for long, his reputation as a Major champion in his own right established by two US Masters titles.
As Ryder Cup captain, Olazabal will be very much his own man, which became patently clear yesterday as he insisted the number of wild card picks available to the European skipper should revert to two in 2012.
Most believed Europe were likely to go the other way at Medinah and seek parity with America -- who granted Corey Pavin's wish for four wild cards at Celtic Manor -- or at least maintain the status quo at three, which Colin Montgomerie had in his winning hand.
Yet Olazabal stated yesterday: "The more picks you have the less value you give to the qualifying system. You have to play extremely good golf to be in the top five in world ranking points and top five in the Race to Dubai and it'd be a shame for any player at fifth spot on the world list not to make the team automatically. To have two picks is my wish. That's my desire,"
As Ian Poulter added his voice to the unanimous chorus of approval at Olazabal's appointment in Abu Dhabi yesterday, he suggested a simple alteration to the qualification system which could have made Monty's job a lot easier and yielded a near-certain captain's pick for Paul Casey.
Poulter suggests the current system should be 'flipped', putting the five players atop the Race to Dubai points list first in the pecking order, followed next by those on the world points list.
Had this applied at Celtic Manor, all three of Monty's wild cards, Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington and Edoardo Molinari would have made the team automatically (along with the omitted Justin Rose) at the expense of Miguel Angel Jimenez, Peter Hanson and Francesco Molinari.
Olazabal's popularity in the US is just one important reason why he was a no-brainer for the captaincy -- he can be as discreet as a diplomat yet wield words like a stiletto.
Asked what he learned from being alongside Nick Faldo at Valhalla and Monty at Celtic Manor, Olazabal replied with a smile: "That everything's black or white." Winning captains automatically become heroes and losers, like Faldo, go straight to the gallows ...
Olazabal's inference was clear until he added: "Well, obviously, I have my point of view on how to treat players. I always try to be close to players and that's what I'm going to be -- hear what they say and make their lives as easy as possible, so everybody feels comfortable and ready to play."
Olazabal made himself available for the captaincy because the arthritic condition which knocked his playing career off the rails in recent seasons is now showing marked improvement. Seve's not so lucky. Olazabal reports: "He's very, very weak at the moment, but he's in high spirits. Chemotherapy really takes a lot of energy out of you and he's in that process at the moment."
Asked if Ballesteros would be his unofficial vice-captain, Olazabal replied: "I wouldn't say so, but he's one of the best advisors."