AUCHTERARDER, Scotland — It’s sometimes hard to believe that Jose Maria Olazabal has turned into an elder statesman on the European Tour. It certainly doesn’t gel with his first appearance on British fairways.
The Spaniard came to prominence in the 1982 British Boys Championship. The 16-year-old was a little fiery. The R&A complained to the Spanish Golf Federation about Olazabal’s “Muhammad Ali tactics.” Olazabal thought it was OK to stare opponents down as boxers do before a bout.
Olazabal has softened over the years, but he still enjoys a heavyweight contest. He’ll bring the same fighting qualities as European captain to this month’s Ryder Cup that he first revealed as a competitor 30 years ago.
Caddie Dave Renwick spent 1986-94 by Olazabal’s side, helping him win numerous tournaments, including the 1994 Masters, the first of Olazabal’s two green jackets. Renwick has seen Olazabal’s good and bad sides.
“He’s a lovely guy, and he’s changed a lot since I started working with him when he was 20 years old, but he’s the most determined player I’ve ever worked for,” Renwick said. “He could be horrible. I once walked off Valderrama in tears because I couldn’t take it. He wore you down.”
Olazabal, 46, is a very private man. He still lives in his birthplace of Fuenterrabia, on Spain’s northwest coast.
Despite repeated attempts by IMG to sign him in his heyday, Olazabal remained loyal to Sergio Gomez, who has looked after the golfer since his amateur days. Olazabal hasn’t chased riches as other players have. He walks a different path. Loyalty is important to him, along with old-fashioned ideals such as integrity and professionalism.
“Obviously he’s made a lot of money, but he leads a simple life,” Renwick said. “When I worked for him, he just lived for golf. His only other hobby seemed to be hunting. He enjoys going shooting in the hills with his dogs. That was his life: golf and hunting.”
No player commands as much respect on the European Tour. Arguably no European captain will command as much as Olazabal. He was such a lock for the captaincy that the European Tour’s tournament committee didn’t even meet to discuss the issue. He’s the only Ryder Cup captain decided by phone.
“I called all of them and said, ‘What do you think?’ chairman Thomas Bjorn said. “It was unanimous.”
“I can’t think of anybody who’s more respected than Ollie on the tour,” Paul Casey said.
Ian Poulter first saw Olazabal play in the Ryder Cup when Poulter was 17 and attended the 1993 match at The Belfry.
“Jose Maria Olazabal is the Ryder Cup,” Poulter said. “Simple as that. He was one of two players I thought about when I thought of the Ryder Cup, along with Seve (Ballesteros). No one brought as much passion to the match as those two did.”
Casey, who played with Olazabal in the ’06 Ryder Cup at The K Club and was on the ’08 team at Valhalla when Olazabal was a vice captain, said: “Ollie’s the only man who’s ever made me cry in the Ryder Cup. He made speeches at both matches, and I cried both times.”
Olazabal’s partnership with the late Ballesteros is the most successful in Ryder Cup history. They were nearly unbeatable from the moment they paired together at Muirfield Village in 1987. Olazabal spent a lot of time discussing the captaincy with his compatriot on visits to Seve’s home before the five-time major winner died in May 2011.
“Seve will be present (at Medinah) somehow,” Olazabal said. “I don’t know how, but we will find a way.”
The difference between Ballesteros and Olazabal is that Ballesteros often bordered on gamesmanship. Expect none of that from Olazabal.
“How the matches are played is important,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed the Ryder Cup, but the spirit is important.”
Olazabal has seen all sides of the Ryder Cup. He was involved in the controversy at Brookline in 1999, when many Europeans complained about U.S. celebrations on the 17th green during his singles match with Justin Leonard. To his credit, Olazabal did not stoke the controversy.
“I think the worst atmosphere that doesn’t go with the spirit of the Ryder Cup was at Kiawah (in 1991). That was the turning point. Tom Watson (the 1993 U.S. captain) settled things down. He brought the right spirit back to the match.
I don’t need to talk to Davis (Love III, the U.S. captain) about spirit. He has a lot of respect for the game of golf.”
So Olazabal will do the right thing, and make sure his players will, as well. But don’t think he won’t bring the same fight that he displayed all those years ago.
“He’ll want to win badly,” Renwick said. “He’s still got that single-minded determination. That will never die.”