The first big thing that Jose Maria Olazabal, the European Ryder Cup captain, did for team was get his players some special golf bags. All 12 of them arrived at the first tee this week at Medinah with bags emblazoned with the iconic silhouette depicting the late Seve Ballesteros’ British Open title in 1984.
That silhouette became Ballesteros’ business logo, and he had it tattooed on his left forearm. He described the moment he rolled in that last putt at Scotland’s St. Andrews course as “the happiest moment of my whole sporting life.’’
Ballesteros passed away on May 7, 2011, following a battle with cancer. This Ryder Cup will be Europe’s first without the charismatic Spaniard and no one will miss him more than Olazabal. They formed the most successful partnership in Ryder Cup history, going 11-2-2 in matches they played together.
Though Olazabal won two Masters titles, his career world-wide is best defined by the things he did with Ballesteros at his side. It’s the competitive spirit that they had together that Olazabal hopes to create as captain at this 39th Ryder Cup, and the golf bag tribute to Ballesteros underscores that.
“He was a great figure, not just for myself but for the whole European squad every year that he played,’’ said Olazabal. “We are going to miss him a lot. He was a special man.’’
Olazabal, also from Spain, grew up in a picturesque farmhouse 100 yards from the clubhouse at the Real Golf Club de San Sebastian, where his mother and father both worked.
He hit his first shot at age 2, and his skills progressed steadily from there. Olazabal made his first Ryder Cup team in 1987, when the matches were played at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village course in Ohio. The electric atmosphere and huge crowds there left Olazabal in awe, but – fortunately for him – Ballesteros was there.
“He made it clear to (European captain) Tony Jacklin that he wanted to play with me,’’ recalled Olazabal. “I will never forget that little walk from the putting green to the first tee. I was shaking like a leaf, so I kept my head down. He looked at me and said, `Jose Maria, you play your game, and I’ll take care of the rest.’ And he did.’’
Europe won that ’87 Ryder Cup on American soil, a first in the series and a victory that went a long way in popularizing the event after the U.S. had dominated for six ho hum decades.
Olazabal, Europe’s vice captain in 2008 and 2010, inherits a European squad that has won four of the last five Ryder Cups and six of the last eight. His team this week is loaded with veterans, Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts being its only Ryder Cup rookie.
The Ryder Cup has changed a bit since Olazabal and Ballesteros played together. Olazabal flew to Chicago on Monday with only three of his players with him. The visiting teams used to arrive on the same flight.
“Of the rest of the guys, five were playing last week (in Tour Championship in Atlanta) and the rest have a house or a place here in the States, so it was very logical for them to stay here and just make the trip from their homes,’’ said Olazabal.
Like American captain Davis Love III, Olazabal tended to plenty of off-course administrative details over the last two years to get his team ready for this week. Like Love, he played a limited schedule but shot 65 in his last round before Ryder Cup obligations became overwhelming.
While Love made four captain’s picks Olazabal had to make only two – England’s Ian Poulter and Colsaerts. The determination of pairings will be an ongoing project, just as it will be for Love.
“This is a new Ryder Cup. We are playing here against a very strong team,’’ said Olazabal. “We are playing away. The crowds are going to be rooting for the home team really strong, and we have to be prepared for that. Both teams are pretty much even, and it’s going to be a close match.’’
So, who should win?
“I don’t see any favorites,’’ said Olazabal. “It will be decided, obviously, on the golf course.’’