OLAZABAL EXCLUSIVE: Spirit of Seve can inspire my men to Ryder Cup glory
21:30 GMT, 6 May 2012
Friends: Jose Maria Olazabal and Seve Ballestero
One year on from the passing of his great friend and he still thinks about him every day.
How could it be any other way given all the adventures Jose Maria Olazabal shared with Severiano Ballesteros
Through the dim mists of time we see two blood brothers rescuing each other from the wreckage of each other’s wayward shots at the Ryder Cup. We see them walking in stride, or locked in an embrace after clinching yet another point for their team.
Then came the sadness when the latter’s health was failing. Two weeks before Ballesteros left us, Olazabal paid him one last visit where they reminisced about the glory days, poor Seve hardly able to talk, the two of them with tears in their eyes. In the months following his death, on this day last year, the younger man was bereft.
Now it’s invariably a poignant joy that comes to mind when Ollie conjures up his daily memory of Seve. Like the time in Hong Kong before Christmas, when he botched a recovery shot from the trees.
‘I was thinking how Seve would have made a much better job of it!’ he said, smiling.
It’s that sort of spirit he wants to pervade this year’s Ryder Cup in Chicago, where he will follow in Seve’s footsteps once more as the European captain and there will be a special Seve tribute in the days beforehand. Olazabal is keen to ensure it is free of mawkishness and puts a smile on people’s faces.
‘I don’t want to talk about it because we want it to be a surprise for everyone, including the players,’ he said. ‘We’re all conscious of wanting to strike the right balance. Whenever there was a meeting before the Ryder Cup it was Seve who had the last word, when he always managed to convey his core values: not quitting, being always ready and facing down adversity.
‘Yes, Seve will be there in spirit in every member of our team but it’s those core values we want to get across. We don’t want people so emotional they can’t play.’
Pain: Olazabal (left) was hit hard by Ballesteros' death a year ago
Spend time in Olazabal’s company and it is not hard to understand why his name is considered a byword for integrity among his peers. Colin Montgomerie captured him perfectly when he said: ‘When Ollie speaks, everyone listens.’
Over the years he has turned down tasty offers from management companies because he’d rather leave his affairs in the hands of his lifelong friend, Sergio Gomez.
Millions of euros in appearance fees have been politely declined because he’d rather spend the time at home. The flashiest car he has ever purchased is his current one, a distinctly unflashy Volkswagen Touareg.
When the Real Madrid footballer Xabi Alonso received a Spanish magazine award last year for Sportsman of the Year, he knew exactly who he wanted to present it to him. Not because he and Olazabal are close. It had everything to do with respect.
Embrace: Ballesteros gives Olazabal a victory hug at the Ryder Cup in 1993
‘I was happy to do it because Xabi is a very down-to-earth man,’ explained Olazabal. ‘We met a few years ago at a charity thing in South Africa and we have kept in touch. But I wouldn’t say we were close. I never want to get too close to people and overdo it. You want to respect people’s privacy.’
It’s like that in his hometown, the small fishing port of Fuenterrabia, just a few miles from San Sebastian, where everyone has a friendly greeting but no-one outstays their welcome.
‘Occasionally I’ll be walking down the street and someone will say “Hey, Capitano” and that sort of recognition is nice,’ he said. ‘But one of the reasons I’ve never moved and never will is that people are respectful.
‘All I’ve ever wanted to do when I’m away from home is play golf at tournaments. Why compete in tournaments just to get a big cheque for turning up I would rather spend the time with my family.’
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Leader: Olazabal captains Europe's Ryder Cup team
‘Yes, I am really happy with the career I had,’ he said. ‘When you’re a teenager with promise you dream of being a good player and perhaps winning a major, so to win two and play in six Ryder Cups while going through my injuries, I couldn’t ask for more. Even now, I don’t really think the doctors know why I couldn’t walk in 1995 and 96. Over the years my health has been a real medical mystery.’
Now 46, Olazabal still has problems with his shoulder and lower back but is thankful they won’t prevent him from playing a schedule full enough to know all about the personalities of the team he will captain.
Now that it is the start of a long run of tournaments that will shape his team, he must be delighted to see Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood in the upper reaches of the automatic standings.
‘I think we all know how good Lee and Luke are and I hope they can win a major because there’s nothing better than watching players whom you think deserve to win majors finally doing so,’ he said.
‘That’s why Darren Clarke’s Open victory thrilled so many people last year. I’d place Sergio (Garcia) in the same category. Majors for a pro are the icing on the cake. It’s a special thrill to be able to say you won one.’
Is there anyone better qualified than Olazabal to say if this crop of European players is as good as the golden age in the 1980s Thinking of Seve once more, he screws his face up. ‘What happened to the easy questions’ he says.
‘I genuinely think it is hard to compare different players in different eras. That group of players led by Seve and Nick (Faldo) were special in their time. What we might see is a much larger group of high-quality players but it is going to be very difficult for them to achieve the things we saw in the past because the competition is so much closer these days.’
What we can say is that Olazabal will have a team to cope with what is bound to be a noisy cauldron, played out in the heart of one of America’s most raucous cities. Olazabal, of course, was the man standing on the 17th green at Brookline in 1999 when raucousness spilled over into yobbery and the Americans celebrated before he had even had the chance to putt.
New order: Rory McIlroy will be a key member of Europe's Ryder Cup team against America this year
Thankfully, we’ve all moved on from those disgraceful days and, with Davis Love at the helm for America and Ollie for Europe, there’s little chance of any grotesque repeat.
‘We’ve seen it all over the years, haven’t we’ said Olazabal. ‘We’ve seen calm men explode and good players become great. We’ve seen strong men cry. It’s a very proud moment for me to be captain of Europe.’
And when it’s over, when the last bellowed chant has rung out from the stands and the winning team room, Olazabal will retreat gracefully from the spotlight and back into the bosom of life back home.
He will go into the mountains with his father and their four dogs and go hunting for partridge and woodcock and savour their time together. There, following the sound and fury of a Ryder Cup, he will cherish the quiet and the innocence.
‘We might spend six or seven hours walking in the hills and the only noise you can hear is the dogs working and the whisper of the wind and that’s the beauty,’ he said. ‘Perfect silence I call it. There’s nothing like it.’
Chicago: ‘They bid for the Olympics and the Super Bowl and they are thrilled to get the Ryder Cup. It’s going to be very loud but I’m confident it will be respectful.’
American captain Davis Love: ‘We have a lot of respect for each other. We’re going to try to beat each other like hell but it won’t change our relationship.’
The Ryder Cup: ‘We’ve seen it all over the years. We’ve seen calm men explode, good players become great and strong men cry.’
Seve: ‘I know he will be there in spirit and we want him to be proud of us. I think about him every now and then, certain moments on the golf course. It is always going to be like that.’
Vice-captains: ‘I’d expect to have three or four. If you have four or five players in the team from the UK it would make sense to have a vice-captain from the UK but only if that person has a good relationship with the players. There’s no point if all they do is speak the same language.’
Biggest regret: ‘Not winning The Open. To me, it is the biggest event in our sport, the one that tests every facet of your game. I love it because it is not about strength or patience or imagination, but all of those things.’