Few players in the European game have shown the same single-minded determination in their pursuit of victory as has Jose Maria Olazabal.
I got a private glimpse of Olazabal’s will to win when we were both starting out in golf. I was a young journalist, and he was taking his first steps as a professional. The magazine I then worked for had signed the Spaniard to do a series of instructional articles. I got the assignment.
My instructions were to highlight Olazabal’s short-game wizardry. We went through conventional pitch, chip and bunker shots, and then I presented him with trouble shots.
One such shot called for him to play a chip shot from a severe downhill lie over a bunker to a tight pin with water beyond. When I placed the ball, Olazabal told me it was “unplayable.”
“So you would take a penalty shot in this situation,” I challenged.
The Spaniard looked at me through steely, dark eyes, tightened his lips and told me to move away. He hit the ball to 6 inches, then stared defiantly at me.
The photographer asked for another take, and this time he holed the shot!
It’s this gritty determination that got him through the nightmare of not being able to play for 18 months while he suffered from rheumatoid polyarthritis in his feet in the mid-1990s. Things were so bad that there were times when he couldn’t walk, yet he bounced back to win the 1999 Masters, his second green jacket.
Not that he complained publicly. That’s not the Olazabal way. This very private man keeps his feelings to himself and does not court controversy.
He was the player most affected by American antics on the 17th green in the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline after Justin Leonard holed that monster putt in his singles match against the Spaniard. While many European players complained about the Americans’ lack of sportsmanship, Olazabal didn’t get involved.
To his credit, he has kept a dignified silence ever since.
That isn’t surprising, because the man from Fuenterrabia, on Spain’s northern coastline, is the consummate professional. What matters to him is controlling that small white orb to the best of his ability.
I once watched him hit a string of perfect 3-wood shots while practicing at the 1990 Open Championship. After about 30 perfect shots, and with few practice balls left, he hit a big hook. Caddie Dave Renwick groaned. “We’ll be here for another hour now,” he said.
Sure enough, Olazabal sent Renwick for more balls and set about beating them into the twilight, determined to master that particular club. Most guys would have been content that they’d hit only one bad shot out of 30 balls. Not the man known as “Ollie.” The inferno that burns in his belly wouldn’t let him accept anything but perfection.
That fire is so intense that he once refused to talk to his manager and close friend Sergio Gomez on a flight from Japan to Spain after he’d missed a short putt on the last green to lose a tournament. That’s 12 hours of silence, folks – and they were sitting together.
Anyone who saw Olazabal play as an amateur knows about his intensity. His will to win carried him to tournament victories over supposedly superior opposition. Ask those who watched the Spaniard win the British Amateur at Formby in 1984 to predict which of the two finalists would go on to win major trophies, and the name given would not have been Olazabal.
It would have been Montgomerie.
While Colin Montgomerie displayed the sort of controlled golf that would propel him to eight European Order of Merit titles, the Spaniard got up-and-down from everywhere and holed outrageous chip shots to get the better of his Scottish opponent.
Olazabal, 43, has mellowed slightly with age, at least off the course. In fact, he has assumed the role of elder statesman on the European Tour. No wonder he is the players’ choice to captain the 2012 European Ryder Cup team at Medinah.
He will expect his players to bring the same intensity to the match as he did when he compiled an 18-8-5 record in seven Ryder Cups. Much of that was compiled as half of an almost-unbeatable tandem with Seve Ballesteros.
If having the heart of a champion is a prerequisite for induction into the Hall of Fame, then Jose Maria Olazabal is right where he belongs.
More 2009 Hall of Fame profiles:
• Dwight D. Eisenhower: Golf at the White House (by Adam Schupak)
• Christy O’Connor: A fluid swing forged by ‘Himself’ (by Alistair Tait)
• Jose Maria Olazabal: Dignified, determined and dazzling (by Alistair Tait)
• Lanny Wadkins: He didn’t know how to lay up (by Jeff Rude)