GEORGE, SOUTH AFRICA | When he walked onto the range at Fancourt, heads turned. This was the first time Jose Maria Olazabal was out and about in the year he will captain the Europeans in what he hopes will be a famous away win in the Ryder Cup.
Olazabal knows that people are “captain aware.” He was that way himself, not just in 1987, when he was trying to make the team for a first time, but every time.
“Playing in the Ryder Cup always meant everything to me and it is the same for all of them,” said Olazabal, nodding in the direction of his fellow Europeans. “They love the match, the whole business of playing against the Americans – the four-balls, the foursomes, the camaraderie.”
“When they look at me, they will see me as a ‘reminder.’ I will be in the back of their minds.”
Simon Dyson, lying ninth on the Ryder Cup points table at the start of last week, was one to have noted Olazabal’s arrival.
“You want to impress the captain, of course you do,” said Dyson. “I’d love to be part of his team and listening to his speeches.”
For Dyson, this early sighting had him reiterating his strategy for the season. He does not intend to talk about how close he is to playing at Medinah. When anyone asks, he will switch the conversation to how he is taking aim on winning a couple of tournaments in the first half of the year.
“I’ve seen too many other players put too much pressure on themselves in my situation,” he explains.
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, another would-be Ryder Cup rookie and one who has only Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy ahead of him on the points’ list, is similarly Olazabal-conscious. But he’s finding it all a little strange.
“It’s a bit different because I am honoured to have him as a friend,” began the Spaniard. “What’s funny is to listen to Alvaro Quiros’ partner and my wife teasing Jose Maria. They say that if he will only have me and Alvaro in the team they will help with the wives’ uniforms.”
Olazabal, who enjoys such banter, will be revealing more of his plans in his first formal press conference of the year in Abu Dhabi this week. What is already plain is that he will be looking no less favourably on the older players than the younger fry.
“The older ones have changed so much,” he says. “Only a few years ago, there was none of the emphasis on fitness that there is today. Thomas (Bjorn), Lee (Westwood), Padraig Harrington and Darren (Clarke) are all going in for physical training in a big way and staying competitive.
“(Miguel Angel) Jimenez is another,” he added. “He’s very flexible. You notice it in his warm-up routine and you notice it in the gym. He’s got a belly on him but he works much harder than he lets on.”
To Olazabal, the change in the younger generation is similarly marked. “Take Matteo (Manassero),” he suggests. “In many ways, he is very like I was as a teenager. He is not the longest but makes up for that by being very accurate. Where he is different from ‘the young me’ is in the way he thinks his way round a course. He learned in the amateur game, as they all do now.”
It goes without saying that Tom Lewis is another in that category. Like Manassero, the 21-year-old Lewis will need to perform well across the summer but Olazabal would have taken mental note of how he compiled his opening 68 at Fancourt. After running up a seven at the 16th, he signed off with a couple of birdies.
Olazabal, who has the old spark back in his eye after long years of struggling with his health, plans to be in evidence most weeks. For the moment, his game is good. When he was 7 under after two rounds, he said it would help if he could ‘stay up there’ with potential team members. Yet, he knows not to expect too much of himself amid the myriad demands of the captaincy.
When Nick Faldo took charge of the team of 2008, he resurrected a former wife – No. 3 to be exact – to host wives and families. Ollie says, cheerfully, that he is not about “to spring any surprises” by signing on a first spouse. Away from Fernandez-Castano’s and Quiros’ partners’ light-hearted offers of help, he has a tour official and Niclas Fasth’s wife, Maria, to take care of that side of things.
He sees his main tasks as talking to the players and being on the spot to counsel those who are on the edge of the side at the eleventh hour. For the record, 26 August is the day when he must announce the 10 qualifiers along with his two wild cards.
This great champion chuckled as he revealed the nature of the advice he will be handing out at that point.
“I will be telling them not to think about the Ryder Cup.”