Olazabal starts Ryder Cup reign by reducing his wild-card picks
Spaniard hopes former playing partner Seve Ballesteros will be at Medinah next year after ripping up Montgomerie's selection system
Wednesday 19 January 2011
The first thing Jose Maria Olazabal plans to do as Europe's celebrated new Ryder Cup leader is actually sacrifice some of his power by reducing the numbers of captain's picks.
In a radical move which may – but probably won't – have his predecessor, Colin Montgomerie, questioning the scale of his own ego, the Spaniard will back the players over his judgement and revert to the system ripped up by the Scot two years ago. So, if the committee approves his plan, when he comes to naming his dozen for next year's match in Medinah, there will only be two wild-cards instead of three.
To Olazabal it is simple and yes, thoroughly un-Monty. He plainly wishes to divert the spotlight off the captain. "The more picks you have the less value you give to the qualifying system," explained the 44-year-old here at yesterday's announcement. "You have to play great golf to be in the top 10, so it would be a shame if the last one didn't make it."
As it happens, even with an extra automatic berth, none of Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald would have qualified last time and Olazabal would still have been faced with the awful two-from-three predicament which confronted Montgomerie. If and when he has to make that sort of decision, the two-time Masters champion will doubtless feel some negativity around his leadership. But for now, only positivity springs forth in this desert.
"If you cut Ollie in half it would say 'Ryder Cup'," was the way Ian Poulter reacted to the well-trailed appointment. "He is the only man who has twice reduced me to tears," was Casey's contribution, as he thought of the speeches Olazabal made in the team room, once as a player in 2006 and then, rather more famously, two years later as Nick Faldo's assistant. Casey, like Poulter, like seemingly everyone else here, crooned about the passion of the man. It only went to prove that while the "P" word may be considered the most overused noun in other sports, in the Ryder Cup it is the only thing that truly matters.
Olazabal is not about to disabuse his prospective team of that rather quaint notion. After all, it is a belief he, himself, has always held dear ever since as a 21-year-old he made his debut at Muirfield Village. To European golf, 1987 stands out as the year they first won on US soil. To Olazabal, 1987 also stands out as the year when his enduring love affairs began. Both with the Ryder Cup and the player who has become synonymous with the Ryder Cup.
"To understand why this event means so much to me you have to go back to my first appearance," said Olazabal, who has played in seven matches. "I didn't know what the Ryder Cup was at the time. But then I got the chance to play with Seve [Ballesteros] and then I saw how much it meant to him. I remember my walk from the putting green to the first tee for my first match. I was really nervous. I remember what Seve said to me – 'Try to play your game, enjoy the moment and I will take care of everything else'."
Added Olazabal: "The Ryder Cup is very special for me because of the experiences I had with Seve on my side; the way he played, the way he approached every shot, the intensity of everything around him; the way he fought. He did it every single day, through all the years we played together. That is the best lesson I had in my whole career."
Olazabal was inevitably emotional when speaking about the partner with whom he set a cup benchmark in losing just two of the 15 foursomes and fourballs they played. "Seve was the first man I called when I agreed to accept this position," revealed Olazabal. "I wanted to give him the news personally. He was delighted and we talked about the great times we had together. We also joked about a couple of things, maybe applying some of his theories of '97 when he was captain."
This included Ballesteros instructing the Europe team hotel to give separate beds to the players who were staying with wives or girlfriends. In 14 years of inquiry since, that delicious fact has never come out before. "Seriously it happened," laughed Olazabal. "No, I don't think I'll go there. But I told Seve that I will be giving him a few calls before the match. He's the best advisor I could have."
Obviously, the dream scenario would be for Ballesteros to join his prodigy in Chicago, although as the 53-year-old continues to fight brain cancer that, alas, must remain a prayer. "It's difficult to say if Seve will be able to be there," said Olazabal. "He is going through chemotherapy again and is feeling a little weak at the moment. He is in high spirits, though."
In truth, everyone connected to the European Tour is right up there with him: the committee have finally got their man. With Olazabal's insistence he would only take the captaincy if he could compete and mix with the players, there were fears he would never assume the role for which he is apparently so suited. But after so many years of battling the rheumatic pain which has plagued a garlanded career, Olazabal now feels fit and able.
"This was a job I always hoped for," said Olazabal, who will tee it up here in tomorrow's first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship. "The only question was my health. I know it's something special but also at the same time a huge responsibility. On top of that, you only have one shot at it."
Olazabal is fully aware how quickly the firearm can recoil. He was vice-captain when Faldo received so much flak in 2008 and, after a late call-up was in the same place when Monty was submerged in champagne and adulation in October.
"The one thing I've learned from the last few Ryder Cups is that everything is black or white; there is nothing in between," he said. "You're right if you win and wrong if you lost. You've either made a huge mistake or you did everything completely right. Now I don't think that is the way it is, or the way it should be, but that's just the way it will be. I accept that. I'm just going to try to be myself. I will talk from my heart and hopefully that will be good enough to reach the players' softer spots. And make them play that little bit harder."
Spanish Steps: Olazabal's Ryder Cup record
Jose Maria Olazabal made his Ryder Cup debut in 1987 in Ohio. The Spaniard has played in seven Ryder Cups and been vice-captain twice.
Ryder Cup record:
Played (1987, 89, 91, 93, 97, 99, 2006)
Won 18 Lost 8 Halved 5 Points 20.5
Vice-captain 2008, 2010
1987 (Muirfield Village) Won 3 points
The start of his partnership with Seve Ballesteros, he won three of a possible four points with his fellow countryman to help Europe claim victory on American soil.
1989 (Belfry) 4.5 points
Continued his partnership with Ballesteros and remained unbeaten as Europe retained the trophy.
1991 (Kiawah Island) 3.5 points
Again unbeaten with Ballesteros, including a memorable pairs win over Paul Azinger and Chip Beck.
1993 (Belfry) 2 points
His worst performance. Lost singles match to 51-year old Raymond Floyd.
1997 (Valderrama) 2.5 points
Took 1.5 points off Phil Mickelson to help Europe win the cup.
1999 (Brookline) 2 points
Unbeaten in three matches, but not enough to retain the cup. Halved match with Justin Leonard gave US the win, after controverisally premature celebrations.
2006 (Co Kildare) 3 points
Won two points in the four-balls with Sergio Garcia and defeated Mickelson again as Europe thrashed the US 18.5-9.5 for a third successive victory.
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