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The Relaxed Ryder Cup Captain

Olazabal gearing up for the Ryder Cup

Posted May 29, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece


Now that Luke Donald has taken a firm grip once more on the world number one position, European Ryder Cup captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, must feel all the more comfortable looking towards September’s clash with the US at Medinah.  Because he knows that the presence of a re-focused Rory McIlroy will strike even more fear into the Americans.
A significant aspect of the recent European Tour’s annual awards dinner in London, was the manner in which chief executive, George O’Grady, promoted the current well-being of team golf on this side of the pond.  As he put it: “Europe has the Solheim Cup, Europe has the Ryder Cup, Great Britain and Ireland have the Walker Cup and in a few weeks, the Curtis Cup takes place.  And we wish Tegwin Matthews [GB&I skipper] the best of luck at Nairn to make it four trophies on this side of the Atlantic.”

All of which caused co-presenter at the function, Steve Sands of the Golf Channel, to ask bleakly: “Does it count that we won the President’s Cup?”  And without sounding in any way patronising of his hosts, Sands went on to make a point about Europe’s current dominance of the world rankings.

Olazabal is too long around to be taken in by pre-match spin, but he is also realistic enough to know Europe are clear favourites to retain the trophy captured at Celtic Manor in early October 2010.  “From my observations of the leading candidates for both teams, the Americans have been playing really well lately,” he said, in a reference to the emergence of Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner as serious contenders.

The Spaniard, who made his Ryder Cup debut in the 1987 matches at Muirfield Village, went on: “It is difficult to play away, compared to home matches where your crowds are rooting for you.  It’s always tougher when you go abroad and you have to face crowds there.  The Chicago crowds at Medinah will be loud and partisan and we have to prepare ourselves for that.”

From his contributions as a vice-captain at Valhalla in 2008 and at Celtic Manor, we know that Olazabal will bring real passion to the captaincy, which can be attributed in no small part to the wonderful influence of his illustrious Ryder Cup partner, Seve Ballesteros, the guiding half of what became known as the Spanish Armada.  Yet when asked what sort of Ryder cup captain he saw himself being, he made the intriguing response: “I’m not going to be as close to the players as Seve was.”

This was a clear reference to what was seen as blatant intrusiveness by Ballesteros when he led the European side to victory on his home turf of Valderrama, in 1997. A lasting memory of that event is of the Danish rookie, Thomas Bjorn, in the course of a halved singles match with Justin Leonard.  Four down after four to the reigning Open champion, Bjorn didn't exactly welcome the interjection of his captain, however well-intentioned he might have been, reminding him of Europe's agreed strategy to play the course rather than the opponent.

Bjorn recalled: "He was sitting on a buggy and I said to him 'Hang on a second Seve. I'm one over par and four down. I don't need to know if I'm playing strokeplay or matchplay.  I just want to get around here as good as I can.'  Then I added that I didn't need to see him for the remainder of the match."

Somewhat taken aback by this display of rebellion from his young charge, Ballesteros still couldn’t resist the parting shot of telling Bjorn to relax.  Which brought the now famous response "I AM RELAXED", much to the amusement of onlookers, especially in the European camp.

Though Olazabal lost his singles match to Lee Janzen on that occasion, there would have been no question of interference or advice from the bold Seve, where he was concerned. Now, 15 years on, the current captain said:  “Every player has his own game and it’s up to them to make their own decisions.”  He added: “I will try to be as close to them as possible and if they ask me for advice, I will be there for them.  I will try to give them as much confidence as I can and make them believe we can win over there.”

Meanwhile, one can imagine him becoming increasingly absorbed in the shaping of the respective teams over the coming weeks.

- Dermot Gilleece



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