In Olazabal, Europeans have a captain with heart and history

Tuesday January 18th, 2011
Jose Maria Olazabal was a vice captain for the 2008 and 2010 European Ryder Cup teams.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — It's going to be an emotional 20 months for Jose Maria Olazabal and the European Ryder Cup team.

The 44-year-old Spaniard struggled to hold back tears as he spoke of his love for Europe's biennial dust-up with the U.S. and his pride at having the chance to lead his team. "The Ryder Cup is welded in my heart," he said Tuesday, when his appointment was announced in Abu Dhabi. "It has meant so much to me."

The first person he called with the news, he said, was his old partner Seve Ballesteros. Olazabal's eyes began to well up again at the mere mention of his friend and Europe's finest and most passionate Ryder Cup player. "We joked about a couple of things he did in 1997 [at Valderrama], like separating the beds [of those sharing rooms with partners]," Olazabal said laughing.

It was on his debut at Muirfield Village in 1987 that Olazabal first teamed up with Seve. "I didn't know what the Ryder Cup was all about at that time," he admitted. "But I had a chance to play with Seve, and I saw the way he played and how much it meant to him. Somehow he passed that on to me." They played 15 matches together and lost only twice, once in 1987 to Hal Sutton and Larry Mize, and once in 1993 to Tom Kite and Davis Love III, who will be announced as the U.S. captain on Thursday.

"The two Masters wins (1994, 1999) are the highlight of my career, but this is the proudest," Olazabal said. All the players that were polled voted for Olazabal, which meant the meeting to discuss the next captain scheduled for Tuesday night was cancelled. Thomas Bjorn, the chairman of the players' committee, spoke for his colleagues. "We all feel proud that we have a captain that is much respected by the players and that just gives our team that little bit extra knowing you have a captain you can trust and understand."

Olazabal has played in seven Ryder Cups and 31 matches with a record of 18-8-5. He was a vice captain for Nick Faldo at Valhalla in 2008 and was a late addition to Colin Montgomerie's backroom team last year at Celtic Manor. It was Olazabal's tear-filled motivational speech in the team room at Valhalla that removed any doubt that he had all the required qualities to be an extraordinary team leader.

Graeme McDowell recalled the impact that Olazabal and that speech had on him during his own debut at Valhalla. "He was a big part of why I played so well," McDowell said. "He took me under his wing. We were all sitting around after the singles draw and Jose Maria just got up. He was very emotional. He was feeling empathy with us. He has played many Ryder Cups, and you could just see it hurt him to be injured and missing out. You could see the raw emotion. He spoke about the days he had spent out there with Seve and just how much the Ryder Cup meant to him. There was barely a dry eye in the room."

The Europeans might need someone in the team room to keep a lid on all this emotion, but Ian Poulter probably isn't that someone. "Nobody has more passion for the Ryder Cup than Ollie, Poulter said. "That speech was as good as I've ever heard from a captain or vice captain. You just have to do re-run after re-run of Seve and Ollie to know that it means everything to him. It will be awesome to play for him."

The only worry the European Tour had about Olazabal was his poor health, and the arthritis that has plagued him for more than 10 years. It was such a concern that it probably allowed Montgomerie to captain the team in 2010.

"The feeling of relief when he said he thinks his illness is conquered sufficiently to allow him to do the job — at that moment, nobody else was in the running," said George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour.

Olazabal is also seen as an ideal choice for leading Europe into an away match in the United States. "As a two-time Masters champion, he's a perfect captain for the States," said McDowell. "Maybe Monty might have had a tough time being captain in the States, with his history in the States and his near misses in the majors. When you have a captain like Ollie, who has won two majors on U.S. soil, that helps get on better with everyone. Hopefully the media and fans will embrace him. He's a pretty tough guy to dislike."

Olazabal knows more than most how crowds can make the Ryder Cup such a spectacle, and he has also seen what happens when Ryder Cups go bad. At Brookline in 1999, he was standing over a putt to halve the 17th hole while the U.S. team invaded the green after Justin Leonard holed a 30-footer.

Expect tears and fist pumps in 2012, but don't expect to see the emotion spill over and get ugly. Olazabal is soft-spoken and a gentleman. But, as Love already knows, Olazabal is also a fierce competitor (30 career victories), confrontational (as a British reporter discovered in 2008 after criticizing Faldo), knows his mind (he wants two wild-card picks instead of three), and he's passionately loyal to the European Tour.

"He will just do an incredible job," Poulter said.

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