Olazabal the popular choice to lead defence of Ryder Cup
Tuesday 18 January 2011
Jose Maria Olazabal will be introduced as the Europe Ryder Cup captain here in Abu Dhabi today and so steal an early march over his opposite number. Davis Love will not be named as the US captain until Thursday.
Of course, with the match in Medinah, Chicago, still some 20 months away, the extra preparation time enjoyed by Olazabal will be on the minuscule side of marginal. But with retention of the trophy already being talked up in Europe circles as a "must", the Spaniard should grasp whatever advantage he can. The 44-year-old, like all the others before him, will find the extended build-up a grind.
Saying that, both Olazabal and Love will be popular appointments and should enjoy easy rides from the media. Indeed, among his peers the Olazabal ascension may well be the most welcomed since his great compadre Seve Ballesteros stepped up in 1997. Olazabal was urged to assume the role two years ago, but due to health concerns, declined to put his name forward until too late. Now Olazabal, who played in seven matches, has found the clamour behind his candidacy irresistible.
Such was the desire to see him succeed Colin Montgomerie, the Tournament Players Committee conducted a phone vote in the wake of October's win in Newport. The unanimous verdict means he can be installed before this evening's committee meeting here, where the decision was originally to be reached. In truth, it was Olazabal's position as soon as he informed officials he was ready to become just the third continental captain since Great Britain and Ireland became Europe 32 years ago. By then, Olazabal had been badgered by the winning side at Celtic Manor – where he was co-opted as a vice-captain after the first day's play – and also by his friends.
Ballesteros was apparently one of these. Olazabal is a regular visitor to Ballesteros's home in Pedrena as the five-time major winner recovers from multiple brain tumour operations. The pair formed the most potent partnership in the history of the match – losing just twice in the 15 fourballs and foursomes they played together.
Their relationship is certain to play a central part in an emotional press conference, as is Olazabal's continuing fitness fight. As he has struggled with the potentially crippling effects of rheumatic pain, he has always stressed his wish to be active on tour, and to be mixing with his prospective players. But last season he only played two Tour events.
The good news is that Olazabal – whose collecting of the game's biggest titles was cruelly curtailed in the mid '90s because of the arthritis in his feet – has entered the next four weeks of tournaments which comprise the so-called "Desert Swing", starting here in an Abu Dhabi Championship boasting seven of the world's top 12.
The locker room will be just as delighted to have his company as the teamroom will be to have his leadership. Olazabal earned huge respect, on both sides, with the dignity he displayed in 1999 at Brookline after he was part of the infamous singles match which saw the Americans disgracefully running all over the 17th green to congratulate Justin Leonard as the Basque prepared to take his own putt. More recently, Olazabal was Sir Nick Faldo's vice-captain in Kentucky in 2008 where he showed he had the requisite passion to go alongside the stateliness by reducing the team to tears on the Saturday night with a rousing speech. Even though Europe lost, his contribution that week marked him out as an ideal captain.
In Louisville, he did manage to upset members of the media by launching a finger-pointing, expletive-strewn defence of Faldo's leadership, but even that was seen among the players as being indicative of his loyalty.
"When Jose Maria conducts a team talk or motivational talk, everyone listens," said the world No 1, Lee Westwood. "He will bring leadership, experience and passion and is going to be fantastic when he leads the team at Medinah."
Love does not quite inspire such reverence, although is highly thought-of throughout the game. The 1997 USPGA champion has played in six matches, and actually faced Olazabal in his first Ryder Cup game at the Belfry in 1993 when he and Tom Kite inflicted a rare defeat on the Spanish pair (although Olazabal and Ballesteros did go on to beat them twice).
Reports from Associated Press say the 46-year-old will be officially unveiled as Corey Pavin's successor at Medinah. Love, himself, was a vice-captain in Wales.
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