Jose Maria Olazabal: From modest upbringing in Spain to World Golf Hall of Fame

Jose Maria Olazabal: From modest upbringing in Spain to World Golf Hall of Fame

Olazabal, left, spoke with Jim Nantz before the ceremony Monday.
Marc Serota/Getty Images

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The day before Jose Maria Olazabal was born in Fuenterrabia, a small fishing town on Spain’s northern coast, the first nine holes of a new golf course opened next door to his home. It was a small but fortuitous event that had a big impact, at least on one life. Olazabal, the son of farmers, had the opportunity to discover golf, become a world-class player, travel the globe and earn fame, championships and riches. On Monday night, he took his spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Olazabal talked about his parents on Monday afternoon. “They didn’t really know anything about golf before the course was built. They worked the land and that was it. They couldn’t understand what it was all about, that white thing and all those green fairways. Golf didn’t have any special meaning to them. They couldn’t believe you could earn a living by playing golf.”

His humble start in the game came at the new course, Real Golf Club de San Sebastian, where his grandfather landed the job of greenskeeper. When Olazabal was 2, he was given a cut-down putter and a ball by his father, Gaspar, who later became the course’s greenskeeper after Olazabal’s grandfather died.

The course was private and beyond his parents’ modest financial resources at the time, but it was usually empty on weekdays, which meant he could play. “The only people who played the game in those days were people who belonged to a high class of society,” Olazabal recalled. “That was not my case. I was just lucky enough to be born in the middle of a golf course. Before the course was built, that was a farm.”

Olazabal had access to the mostly empty course, learned the game and practiced, practiced, practiced. When he was 6 and began to take some lessons, he still preferred to swing the club with a crosshanded grip. “As soon as the coaches turned their backs on me, I was back to the left-handed grip,” Olazabal said. “I had a tough time changing the grip. I just played golf because it was a lot of fun. I could spend hours on the chipping green or hitting balls or just walking those fairways.”

At 16, he told his farming parents that he intended to be a professional golfer. “You should have seen their faces,” he said, breaking into laughter.

He quickly played his way onto the Spanish national team and began traveling the world. He turned pro at 19, and the rest is golfing history. He won the Masters twice, in and, captured 23 victories on the European tour and six on the PGA Tour, including two at the World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio. He also won the 1991 International at Castle Pines and the 2002 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. He was one half of the Ryder Cup’s most dynamic duo, paired with fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. That partnership was the foundation of the European team’s rise to prominence.

Olazabal, 43, learned of his election to the World Golf Hall of Fame just after he finished a practice round before this year’s Masters. “I was told not to mention it to anybody,” he said, laughing. “It caught me by surprise, to be honest. My reaction was not the one that was expected because it caught me by surprise, so I just said, ‘OK, fantastic, very good. Thank you very much.’ And that was it.”

He spent several hours Sunday afternoon, the day before the induction ceremony, touring the Hall of Fame for the first time, looking at the exhibits and artifacts on display and absorbing the history, along with the significance of his impending honor. “Everything is sinking in,” he said. “I was telling Arnold (Palmer) at lunch today that I already dropped a few tears, thanks to Jim Nantz. It’s going to be a tough afternoon for me, a very emotional one.”

Olazabal bumped into Palmer again later Monday afternoon. Palmer had just finished an interview with media members about his friend, former President Dwight Eisenhower, who is also one of Monday night’s inductees, and it was Olazabal’s turn to answer questions next. Palmer shook Olazabal’s hand, gave him a smile and jokingly asked about his induction, “Are you ready?”

Olazabal managed a weak grin and answered, “I’m shaking like a leaf.”

Palmer, with a gleam in his eye, let out a hearty laugh and was joined by Olazabal. You may not be able to make a better entrance to the World Golf Hall of Fame than that.