The Captains: José María Olazábal
A quarter of a century on from the flamenco dance that heralded history, José María Olazábal is seeking to choreograph another chapter of Ryder Cup glory.
The Spaniard’s hip-wiggling performance alongside his celebrating team-mates remains the iconic memory of Europe’s first victory on American soil.
“Whenever I see the video I cannot believe it is me, but that tells you everything about The Ryder Cup,” he said. “When you win, the joy is beyond imagination. You are with 11 other players plus their wives and girlfriends and all the backroom staff and there is nothing to compare. You feel for each other. The Ryder Cup has been special to me; to my life. It is welded to my heart.”
Historians of the game will, of course, always point to the 1987 match at Muirfield Village in Ohio as being the birth of the game’s most charismatic and successful partnership.
Seve Ballesteros and Olazábal bonded their individuality in such a zealous manner that they galvanised their colleagues into sharing their belief that, displaying such unashamed care and emotion, significantly increased the impetus generated by their special precocious talents.
No player was closer to Ballesteros than Olazábal and no player instilled into Olazábal the importance of The Ryder Cup more than Ballesteros.
“I didn’t know what The Ryder Cup was in 1987, but then I played with Seve,” he said. “I saw the way he played, what it meant to him. He passed that attitude onto me. And he passed it on to others. I know just how much impact Seve had with the phone call he made to our team during the match at Celtic Manor in 2010 – he reached out to the players; it was very emotional.”
Sadly, as we know, Seve will not be at Medinah. He lost his fight with cancer on May 7, 2011 and Olazábal said: “The best tribute we can pay to Seve is to go on playing for him, although no tribute will ever do justice to everything he did for golf and to everything he gave us.”
Even so, Olazábal owes his allegiance to the game to his upbringing, not to Ballesteros. He was born to play golf – arriving in this world on February 5, 1966, in a 250-year-old traditional, picturesque Basque farmhouse 100 yards from the clubhouse at the Réal Golf Club de San Sebastian where his father, Gaspar, and mother, Julia, both worked. There, in the beautiful countryside in the hamlet of Hondarribia at the foot of the Jaizkibel mountains, Olazábal, aged two, hit his first shots on the rich pasture lands on which golfers now fight to master the game where once livestock roamed.
Olazábal, of course, achieved that better than any of the other members. Yet one of those members was to play a vital role as the young señor matured. Sergio Gomez, former medical student, rugby forward, salesman, lover of classical music and 13 handicap golfer, would become Olazábal’s chaperon, caddie, chauffeur, companion and confidant. Gomez likened it to being a minister without portfolio. The timing was perfect.
Progressing through the Spanish age group system, Olazábal won the Under 9s National Infantile Championship aged seven before graduating in style to make his first international appearance aged 15 in the Spanish Under-18 team.
At 16 he journeyed with his best friend Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Gervas to the Junior World Cup at the Atlanta Athletic Club where he hit a three wood of such beauty out of the rough at that last hole that Spain won the title. Byron Nelson, the winner of five Major Championships and the 1965 winning United States Ryder Cup captain, called it “one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen.”
Gomez offered to help with his entry letters to big competitions as Olazábal embarked on creating history by becoming the first golfer to complete the ‘Triple Crown’ of the British Boys’ Championship, the British Youths’ Championship and The Amateur Championship.
The career of a professional was looming and Olazábal’s family life – he grew up with his mother, father, grandmother Sabina, grandfather José Maria and sister Sabina in the harbour fronted village where they lived – would need to be exchanged for a gypsy-like existence once he won the European Tour Qualifying School at La Manga in 1985, only weeks after losing a play-off to Ballesteros in the Spanish PGA Championship.
Olazábal could not have chosen a finer place to win his first tournament and look into the future than halfway up the Swiss Alps – his 1986 victory at the European Masters on the Crans-sur- Sierre course in Switzerland, being the first of 23 European Tour wins and 30 in all worldwide. His Masters Tournament success in 1994 secured global acclaim and his second in 1999 was emotionally received after his well-documented recovery from rheumatoid polyarthritis.
Even so, The Ryder Cup, with seven appearances, a record 11 wins and two halves from 15 matches in partnership with Ballesteros, followed by roles as vice-captain in 2008 and 2010, has been a major part of his life. Now, the next chapter waits to unfold at Medinah Country Club.