ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | The decision for Jose Maria Olazabal to be the Ryder Cup captain at Medinah was finalised during last year’s match in Wales. Colin Montgomerie’s success as captain may have swamped the headlines but Olazabal’s impact was such that the players told the committee there was no point in considering anyone else for the role. They had to have the Spaniard.
Yet, the fact that Olazabal advanced his cause at Celtic Manor was purely down to chance.
Back in January 2009, when Montgomerie was given the captaincy ahead of Olazabal on account of the latter’s poor health, the Scot told the Tournament Players Committee that his first move would be to ask Ollie to be a vice-captain. Understandably anxious to gauge Ollie’s reaction, a couple of committee members caught up with him a day or so later, only to learn that Monty had not made any kind of an approach.
Though Montgomerie would argue that he was confused by conflicting reports concerning the Spaniard’s fitness, he never did invite him to join his back-room team – and it was only when the Ryder Cup week was under way that things changed. Once all the players were in action all the time, Monty needed another helper and Olazabal, who was at Celtic Manor as an ambassador for Nespresso, was approached by a European Tour official.
Back in 2008, this two-time Masters champion had inadvertently stolen Nick Faldo’s thunder when he spoke to the team on Saturday night and introduced a much-needed measure of passion. He let the players share in his feelings for the Ryder Cup – feelings which had taken on a new dimension in those dark days when his rheumatoid polyarthritis was so dire that he could only stare down the fairways he used to play.
At Celtic Manor, Olazabal once again prompted the players to dig deeper, with Graeme McDowell recalling that moment when he pointed to the picture of himself and Seve in full cry. “He really conveyed what the Ryder Cup meant to him. You could feel the emotion coming out of the guy,”
Francesco Molinari told how Ollie walked around with Edoardo and himself on the Sunday and contributed arguably more than they did to their crucial half point. “Edoardo and I were one down with three to play and we were scared that we might lose again,” said the Italian. “I don’t remember his exact words, but Ollie told us that we would win the 18th. He said that all we needed to do was to get a little bit lucky and to keep trying. He was so reassuring, so calm.”
Olazabal has an aura about him which has everything to do with the respect in which he is held around the world.
“You can see it when he enters the room and you can see it with the players when he walks on to the practice ground,” said Martin Kaymer. “There are not a lot of people who are like Jose Maria. It is special to have him as our captain.”
George O’Grady, the European Tour’s CEO, is a great believer in that old adage about horses for courses, and never more so than when it comes to which of his players he should send out with whom in a pro-am context. Montgomerie is his first choice for captains of industry. Olazabal, though, is his No.1 when he needs someone to shepherd younger players.
In which connection, he gave Olazabal two of the Duke of York’s Wellington College scholars at the pro-am prior to last year’s BMW championship at Wentworth. The party was doing well, but the moment Ollie noted that the boys were getting a bit excited, he sounded a note of caution. “Our scoring’s nothing special,” he advised somberly. “You will need to make a lot more birdies if we’re going to get among the prizes.” They did and, as you will have guessed, they won with room to spare.
That week, Olazabal played only in the pro-am. Today, his health is still not 100 percent, though he says that he has been off all medication since June and has made huge strides over the winter. Fingers crossed, he believes he will be able to compete in enough tournaments to stay close to the players.
Seve was the first person he told of his appointment and he will consult with his old comrade-in-arms throughout his captaincy. He admitted, a little sheepishly, that Seve’s typically mischievous opening gambit was that he should do as he did in 1997 and discourage players from sleeping with their partners.
“Seve never actually said anything,” said Lee Westwood, “but what I can tell you is that Laurae (Westwood’s wife) and I pushed the beds together by night and someone pushed them apart by day.”
It would be a miracle were Seve at the match but, even as things stand, McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and the rest have goose pimples at the mere prospect of being in Jose Maria Olazabal’s team room.