Ryder Cup success has always hinged on trusting partners
Jose Maria Olazabal recognises the need to get the chemistry right, says Dermot Gilleece
Much as he admires Irish golf, Jose Maria Olazabal will resist any temptation to lionise our top players when he captains the European Ryder Cup team at Medinah next autumn. There is no danger of Rory McIlroy being accorded the sort of deference showered on Seve Ballesteros by Olazabal's illustrious predecessor, Tony Jacklin.
That much became evident at the annual European Tour end-of-season lunch in London last Thursday where a rather special dimension was added to the occasion through the announcement that Peter Alliss and Sandy Lyle were being inducted into Golf's Hall of Fame.
All of which gave it a distinct, Ryder Cup flavour, redolent with memories of Olazabal's amazing partnership with Ballesteros, while Alliss reminded him, and a rapt audience, of his own exploits with Christy O'Connor Snr.
"How is Christy," Alliss enquired. "Someone told me he doesn't go down to the Dollymount dunes with the dogs any more."
Having recently paid a social call to Himself at his Clontarf home, I could assure his erstwhile partner that he was still consumed with golf, only now through the medium of television. And that he was looking forward to his 87th birthday on Wednesday.
O'Connor, of course, beat Alliss into the Hall of Fame by two years. "I'm sure Christy would agree with me that sport is a wonderful thing if you're successful," added the golfing voice of the BBC. "But it can be a very hard taskmaster. Dentists, doctors don't get their work examined under the media eye four days a week. Miss a short putt and you're dismissed as an idiot."
Later, with microphone in hand and looking across the room at Olazabal, he said: "They all talk about Seve in the Ryder Cup, but you must have saved him 50 times. And when I was captain of the PGA in 1987, you did your wonderful victory dance at Muirfield Village. I remember Seve leaving you a six-foot return putt on that occasion and you knocked it in. You were wonderful.
"I had a similar thing with Christy O'Connor. We played together before the Ryder Cup was quite as glamorous as it is now, but it was glamorous enough. On the occasion of our first foursomes in Palm Springs (1959) we were two up against Doug Ford and Art Wall with three to play. And they were in trouble on the 16th (34th) which was a decent par-five of about 530 yards with a rolling fairway and water to the right of the green. I hit a good drive onto a downslope. Meanwhile, they had to hack out of a bunker and were nowhere near the green in three, before we hit our second.
"Christy and I had a wonderful relationship; we never apologised to each other, which was something I learned on the first hole I ever played with him. So I'm looking at this shot and fancying him to knock a four-iron up the fairway leaving me to pitch on and we'd make a five. And that would be a 3 and 2 win against two of the most formidable members of the US Ryder Cup team.
"That's when Christy says 'I think I'll cut up a driver'. So I look again at the lie and note the wind coming from the left and the water to the right of the green. But we had pledged to trust each other and while all these thoughts are going through my head, Christy hits it to 12 feet of the hole and we won. And Christy strode off as if he had meant it. And I knew in my heart and soul that he really had meant it."
Olazabal smiled at this. He, too, had memories of O'Connor, going back to his own Irish Open debut as an amateur at Royal Dublin in 1985, when he recalled sharing 34th place behind Ballesteros with Lee Trevino, among others. "As a young man, I found it wonderful to listen to Christy talking about golf," he said. "I'm glad he's well."
Two months short of his 46th birthday, Olazabal's weight has made a minor concession to the middle years. But he is pain-free -- "I feel good, no problems right now" -- from the rheumatoid polyarthritis which threatened his career.
I suggested a sort of coming of age for him, given it is 21 years since he won the Irish Open at Portmarnock. "I know, I know," he said. "Irish golf has gone through a huge evolution since then. In those days you had many good players but Rory and G-Mac, Pádraig and Darren obviously belong to a different league. They are now playing the game at a higher level, especially Rory." How good is Rory, I wondered. "He's good, his game is solid, but there is obviously room for improvement."
Then, measuring his words, Olazabal went on: "He hits the ball long, but I think sometimes his putting is not as good as the rest of his game. And we know how important that club is to the bag, in order to achieve things like winning Major events, like he did at the US Open."
I suggested that he reminded some people of Seve. "In a way, yes," he said. "But I think Seve had a much better charisma. Talent is very difficult to define. It pretty much depends on how much work you put into it and these guys work hard, that's why they're good. With Rory I like what I see. The potential is huge. Look at the way he won the US Open, especially after what happened at the Masters. He took control of the tournament from the beginning and was just awesome to watch."
And what about the Irish partnership as a key ingredient next autumn? "I'm hoping for all the help I can get and that would be wonderful to see. I know the relationship between G-Mac and Rory is really good. They complement each other. That's what you need."
It was said that the only bright moments in the European players' room at Valhalla in 2008 came on the Saturday night when Olazabal, as vice-captain, addressed them with extraordinary passion. And the source of this intensity was emphasised by the way he talked about the strength, fighting spirit and passion of his beloved partner after Seve's death earlier this year.
That's what he'll be seeking from his players at Medinah. And, unlike Jacklin, you get the feeling he doesn't really care who delivers it.
Sunday Indo Sport