Olazabal's pedigree will inspire his team
The Spaniard is steeped in Ryder Cup history, writes Dermot Gilleece
Out of gnawing apprehension on the practice ground at Muirfield Village, a great Ryder Cup career was born for Jose Maria Olazabal. Now, having graduated from timid rookie of 1987 to master of his craft, comes the ultimate accolade of European captain at Medinah next year.
The transformation in Olazabal's Ryder Cup fortunes was brought about by Seve Ballesteros to whom he made his first phone-call on learning of the honour in Abu Dhabi last week. Memories remain vivid for me of how skipper Tony Jacklin explained his reasons back then for creating a duo who would become known as the 'Spanish Armada'.
On hearing Olazabal wanted to stand down because of poor form in practice, Ballesteros prevailed upon Jacklin to ignore the player's pleas. Then, turning to his compatriot, he said with classic bravado: "Don't worry, Jose. I will play good enough for both of us."
The pair instantly made their mark with two victories on the opening day, the second involving typically outrageous brilliance from Ballesteros. After missing the first green in the afternoon's fourball against Curtis Strange and Tom Kite, Ballesteros asked his partner to secure a par with a second putt of about three feet before he, attempted a recovery chip.
Strange objected on the grounds that by doing so, Olazabal would spike up the line of his [Strange's] putt. Instead of dismissing the objection as he could have done, an uncharacteristically quiescent Ballesteros said calmly "okay, no problem." Then, when his partner had marked the ball, he proceeded to chip into the hole for a birdie three to a stunned response from the Americans.
With three wins in their pairs matches at Muirfield Village -- they lost to Hal Sutton and Larry Mize on the Saturday afternoon -- the Spaniards formed such an irresistible partnership that Olazabal was promptly labelled 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'. Early nervousness gave way to some majestic iron shots, though it was his putting which most impressed his illustrious partner. "Nobody is better than Jose from around three metres," said Ballesteros.
By 1991 at Kiawah Island, they had become the most feared pairing in Ryder Cup history. There, they achieved a psychological edge as early as the opening foursomes against Paul Azinger and Chip Beck. Under the rules at the time, each player had to use the same make and type of ball he started with when hitting off his driving holes.
So Beck, who was driving the odd-numbered holes, should have played his 90-compression ball at the long seventh. Instead, the Americans mistakenly decided they might have a better chance of reaching the green in two by using Azinger's 100-compression model, a breach the Spaniards observed.
Nothing happened, however, until the home pair had reached the turn, three up. Then Ballesteros unveiled a cunning plan aimed at capturing the match, not simply a single hole. His objective was to upset Azinger and Beck so much that their performance on the homeward journey would be totally undermined.
As it happened, it was Olazabal who fired the ammunition which had been carefully primed by his partner. It began with the Spaniards claiming the seventh, despite knowing it was too late. This prompted a heated exchange which was eagerly picked up by TV cameras and a large gallery between the ninth green and the 10th tee. As Azinger and Beck protested animatedly about never intending to cheat, the damage was done. They proceeded to fall apart, losing five out of eight holes from the turn en route to a highly improbable 2 and 1 defeat.
It is now part of Ryder Cup lore that in their 15 matches together, Ballesteros and Olazabal won 11, halved two and lost two. Small wonder that in the wake of his appointment last week, Olazabal said: "What Seve taught me in 1987 when we played together for the first time has lasted me my whole life. He's the reason I'm so passionate about the Ryder Cup. It was the best lesson I could ever have had."
Meanwhile, his close ties with this country go back to 1980 when he competed as a 14-year-old in the Junior World Cup at Portmarnock. A truly lasting bond with Irish golf, however, was formed in the unlikely setting of Augusta National, five years later. Long-time associate Sergio Gomez explained: "As the reigning British Amateur champion, Jose played the Masters for the first time in 1985. Joe Flanagan of Carrolls asked if I was his manager, to which I replied I was his driver, his caddie, his nurse and his babysitter, but I wasn't his manager. But we could still talk."
The upshot was that player and prospective manager accepted a sponsor's invitation to the Irish Open at Royal Dublin two months later when, in sharing 34th place behind Ballesteros, Olazabal reaffirmed an affection for links golf. "It was very important to me to get that chance of playing in Ireland back then, and I will always be grateful for it," he later recalled. "That is why I have a good feeling for your country. The crowds appreciate my play and that is important to a tournament golfer."
When victory in the Irish Open came in 1990, the timing couldn't have been better. "The more I played Portmarnock, the more I enjoyed the fairness of the course and the demands it placed on iron play," he said. "And I remember thinking that 1990 was my last chance to win there, because the tournament was going to Killarney the following year." A week prior to that win, he finished eighth behind Hale Irwin in the US Open at Medinah and made two further appearances at the Chicago venue in the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championship. One can easily imagine him in a role nobody has deserved more, drawing on those experiences as he guides Europe towards the defence of the Ryder Cup.
No doubt with a few friendly Irish faces in the team room.
Sunday Indo Sport