A chat with Chema Olazabal

A few days ago José María Olazábal competed in the Lacoste Promesas at La Sella Golf Resort . The two time champion of the Augusta Masters, who holds more than 35 international titles, played in the Ryder Cup six times and who, as captain in 2012, engineered the so-called ‘miracle of Medinah’, took time out to chat to María Acacia Lopéz Bachiller about ‘the divine and the human.’

Chema Olazabal in La Sella “Golf’s critics and stigmas don’t bother me, each to his own, and as to what people end up doing, only time will tell” Photo courtesy of Jorge Andreu

He came ninth in the last tournament he competed in, the Hassan II Golf Trophy in Morocco (29/03/15), and shot a round of 71 in the second round of the Masters (10/04/15). “I put in a good performance in Morocco, but on the first day at Augusta it all unraveled. After the Masters, I felt quite stiff, I did some training the following Monday and went to the Spanish Open with reservations. I couldn’t play. I came home, started to see several doctors, had therapy… And here I am taking anti-inflammatories and steroids, unable to do anything. If I’m still it doesn’t bother me but when I try to move around, my shoulders, groin, abductor muscles and calves ache. It was the same thing that happened to me during the US Open in 2007: overnight my joints started to ache and I couldn’t move. There’s no need to keep going over and over it, what happened happened. It’s annoying, without a doubt, being at home not being able to move or live a vaguely normal life- it’s pretty tough. But just as last time it happened and I was able to bounce back from it, it could well be the case this time too. They say that these things come in waves, cycles… Right now I’ve got to be optimistic and be patient- it’s a slow process, that will take around five or six months. It’s the same old story, but what can you do?

“In the last few months I’ve watched a lot of TV- sport, documentaries, movies, I’ve done a lot of Sudoku- if I play anymore they’ll make me world champion! I’ve seen what Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy have done. It’s been an exceptional season of two halves: Spieth dominated the first, playing at an extraordinary level; that he could put up such a performance was just unreal. Jason Day was pretty much the same- he played spectacularly- off the chart. It’s been a year to remember. Both have been at the top of their game. It was a shame about the accident that put Rory out of the running.

“It’s been wonderful to see Spieth and Day win and rewrite history in the process. On various occasions we’ve seen players who’ve experienced difficulties only to come out of it on top and taking into account the problems Jason had when he was younger, he deserves all the more credit. The fundamental element as to why, at just 21, Jordan comes across older than his years, is his sister, who suffers from a disability; the harsh reality of life makes you appreciate things and realize how fortunate you are.”
Changes to the European Tour regulations: “I don’t think reducing the number of tournaments you have to play in order to be a member of the European Tour to five really changes anything. Granted, this step will make life easier for those that aren’t in the top 50 and can’t get into the four majors or the WGC. As far as the possible agreement with the Asian Tour is concerned, the offer’s on the table but nothing’s decided yet. I think it’s too early to say what will come of it. We’ll see. “

Ryder Cup 2016: “Although there’s still a lot do before the team’s complete, there are six or seven players, such as McIlroy, Stenson, Rose and McDowell that will form the backbone of it…. There are other potential candidates like Andy Sullivan, Danny Willett, or Michael Fitzpatrick who have come a long way but still need to do more. Darren Clarke, (European team captain in 2016) is respected by all his team mates, he’s been a temperamental player who over the years has learnt to control this personality trait. The Americans are doing things differently, the players’ opinions are starting to be taken into account when it comes to taking decisions and this has contributed to a better team spirit. After the last few defeats, playing the next edition of the tournament at home will add extra pressure. I think it was a sound decision to pick Davis Love III as captain. He was crucified after Chicago and it was nothing to do with his captaincy, he did well: on the Sunday, in the crucial stages, everything came good for Europe. I don’t think there’s anyone else up to the task.

Tiger Woods, vice-captain of the USA. “Knowing him, he’ll be falling over himself to play! Unfortunately, his physical condition is a real cause for concern. He came back following surgery and lately hasn’t picked up a club. It would be better for golf if he just came clean about it, it would be nice to see the sport itself being talked about in the media. I would like to see Tiger competing alongside the new generation: McIlroy, Day, Spieth. They’d give him a good game, that goes without saying, and quite right too. Tiger was everyone’s idol, of the kids and their parents, the model son that every mother wants. It all went to the dogs and he lost his aura of invincibility. It was a tough situation- he was fighting a losing battle, we all know what American morality can be like. What I was most struck by was his composure when under pressure: his game was consistently very good, and his approach shots and putting were out of this world. But his composure…. Thanks to this he was already a cut above the rest.

“Spanish golf comes in waves. Winning three or four tournaments every year isn’t easy. The competition and standard is bigger and better every time. The differences between players are now minimal. I’ve always said that we have Sergio (Garcia) for however many years, he proved himself when he won in Vietnam. I hope that Gonzalo (Fernandez-Castaño) and Álvaro (Quirós) make a comeback; I see potential in the rest to win, for example, I look at Alejandro (Cañizares) and think that with a game like his, he should win more. We are not far off. And ‘El Pisha’… He’s another kettle of fish altogether; totally unique.

“The final Lacoste Promesas is very special for me, I am very close to the Basis (distributors of Lacoste in Spain) and Bañó (owners of La Sella). They had faith in me when I started out, and I had a lot of fun with the kids. Every year they play better, the average ages gets lower. This time round there were two 13 year-olds and lots of 14 year-olds- and the standard of play and the coaching gets better and better. They train harder, they’re more professional, and they are in shape, but this has to go hand-in-hand with discipline, sacrifice and perseverance. All this has to be married together to help them get to the top. Healthy competition at this level is good, it helps them to develop as individuals at the same time as they evolve as players. I really enjoy watching them, I love how they play and the enthusiasm they put into it, I find it rejuvenating. We strive to create a convivial atmosphere and to make them feel comfortable. They ask lots of questions, and check with us on whether or not they’re doing the movements properly. We began at La Manga Club 12 years ago and we’ve seen them grow. It’s been such a joy to come back to see Azahara Muñoz and to spend those days with Marta Silva and Juan Sarasti, the first winners. It’s been wonderful watching them as professionals. I remember the edition that saw Jon Rahm qualify, and now he’s doing extraordinary things. We always had enjoyable times in what was a really familial atmosphere and I’m thankful for that.”

On his work as a golf course designer: “At the moment, we’re working on a course in Qatar but progress is a lot slower than we’d hoped: they’re starting to create the front nine holes and the practice course. And it seems as though the project we began in Spain years ago is now starting to gather renewed momentum. I’m very happy with the results of the back nine holes at La Sella: they’re there to be enjoyed, they’re spacious, not too difficult, players have a whale of a time, and finish on a high. The first few holes are harder, the trees have grown and the fairways are narrower.

“Golf’s critics and stigmas don’t bother me, each to his own, and as to what people end up doing, only time will tell. It’s all about making it more attractive to kids; the future of golf rests on this; we need to ensure that kids are drawn to this sport- it’s essential. Golf is doing great things. Those of us that play golf have a particular sensitivity towards those at a disadvantage and that’s the part that tends to be overlooked. At the end of the day, you get what you give.

“Life has given me everything. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I look back at the past and see a kid in his element kicking a ball around…. How did I wind up here! I’m extremely fortunate. I’ve fulfilled so many of the dreams I had, some that once seemed so impossible have become a reality. I have met a lot of people, and have been lucky enough to rub shoulders with the best in the sport, I have learned from them all, from the great, and the not so great. They have all taught me many things that have made me a better person. I’ve also learned that, despite all the effort and hard work, not everyone comes out on top; they have my total respect. It’s been a long but entertaining journey, full of both ups and downs: great highs and the deepest lows when it felt as though everything was shrouded in total darkness. It’s been an emotional ride.”

Interview by Maria Acacia Lopez Bachiller.