Olazabal displays ideal demeanor for captaincy

Jose Maria Olazabal after being named the 2012 European Ryder Cup captain.

Jose Maria Olazabal after being named the 2012 European Ryder Cup captain.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – There was only ever one man to lead Europe in the 2012 Ryder Cup. Jose Maria Olazabal had no rivals as a successor to Colin Montgomerie.

Only Olazabal could have vetoed his own nomination. Personal concerns over his health could have forced the Spaniard to say no thanks. Thankfully for Europe, and to the detriment of the U.S., Olazabal feels his long-term problems with rheumatoid arthritis are under sufficient control for him to do the job.

He was named the 2012 European Ryder Cup captain at a press conference Tuesday in the Middle East. Europe has won six of the last eight Ryder Cups, including the last match at Celtic Manor in Wales. Olazabal as captain makes seven out of nine a very real possibility.

Few players in the European game have shown the same single-minded determination in their pursuit of guiding small white balls into small dark holes as Olazabal has.

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 worked for then 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 six inches, and then stared defiantly at me.

The photographer asked for another take, and this time he holed the shot!

It’s this same gritty determination that got him through the nightmare of not being able to play for 18 months while he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis in his feet in the mid 1990s. 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, does not court controversy or fan the flames thereof.

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 lack of sportsmanship of the U.S. side, Olazabal didn’t get involved.

To his credit, he’s kept a dignified silence ever since.

That isn’t surprising, because the man from Fuenterrabia, on Spain’s northern coastline, is the consummate professional. The only thing that really 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 on the practice ground during the 1990 Open Championship. After about 30 perfect shots, and with few practice balls remaining, he hit a big hook. Caddie Dave Renwick groaned, “We’ll be here for another hour now.”

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 they’d only hit 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 – and they were sitting together!

Anyone who saw Olazabal play as an amateur knew all about his intensity. His will to win often carried him to tournament victories over supposedly superior opposition.

Ask anyone who watched the Spaniard win the British Amateur Championship at Formby in 1984 which of the two finalists would go on to win major trophies, and most would have replied Colin Montgomerie.

While Montgomerie displayed the sort of controlled golf that propelled him to eight European order of merits, the Spaniard got up and down from everywhere and holed outrageous chip shots to get the better of his Scottish opponent.

Aside from his two Masters wins, Olazabal’s performances in the Ryder Cup will serve as a lasting legacy to the game. His nearly unbeatable partnership with Seve Ballesteros formed the backbone of European success in the 1980s and 90s.

Olazabal has mellowed slightly with age. He has assumed the role of European Tour elder statesman, carrying much respect. That much was obvious in 2008 when he gave an impassioned speech on the eve of the singles as Nick Faldo’s vice-captain. No wonder he was the unanimous choice to captain the 2012 European team.

He will expect his players to bring the same intensity to the match as he did when he compiled an 18-8-5 won, lost and tied record in seven matches. More importantly, he will expect his players to carry themselves with grace and integrity.

European hopes of victory in 2012 couldn’t be in better hands.

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