08 Feb 2023

José María Olazábal – I have full trust the European team will deliver in Rome

Words to describe José María Olazábal; icon, legend, hall of famer. The 56-year- old will forever remain one of the golf’s all-time greats with an endless list of achievements.

Following seven Ryder Cups as a player, the Spaniard captained a European side to overcome a four-point deficit in the 2012 singles to eventually win 14.5 –13.5 at Medinah. Will Kent caught up with the two-time Masters champion to find out what Europe need to do in 2023 if they are to lift the Ryder Cup trophy once more.

Journalists are lying if they never feel a tad nervous heading into interviews with superstar names. Perhaps not shivering with worry, but there’s always something at the back of the mind shouting ‘don’t mess this up!’.

That’s exactly how I felt before approaching Olazábal for an interview. I was stood on the range at the Hero Cup watching him stripe it with genuine speed, despite now being in his mid 50s. He wasn’t even playing in the event, but he loves the game enough to still practice at every given opportunity. But why was he really there?

“Luke called Paul McGinley and myself to attend,” said Olazábal when asked about his attendance at the Hero Cup. “He wanted to create the spirit of the Ryder Cup. We wanted to try and explain what it meant to us, and how important it is for us. Also, to tell a couple of stories here and there.”

Following three days of contests at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, it was Continental Europe who claimed victory with a 14.5 – 10.5 victory over Great Britain & Ireland. The score was obviously important, but it was more for gaining experience in the format, team bonding and finding out which players dovetail well ahead of the Ryder Cup in September.

“When we played the same match with a different name (Seve Trophy) it was great for the team,” said Olazábal. “We don’t play match-play all that often during the season so you get to know the players, the players get to know each other. You can maybe see good chemistry between certain players and I think that might help a lot regarding the players playing the Ryder Cup and the Captain knowing the players even better.

“Luke knows really well what he needs to do. I don’t think he needs any advice. He’s been a (Ryder Cup) player many times and he’s been number one in the world. He knows what it takes to play the Ryder Cup and to play match play. In that regard I don’t think he needs any help.”

While the Hero Cup helped supply some much-needed team experience to some younger stalwarts of the DP World Tour, it lacked any real rivalry. The Captains of each side – Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari – are great friends. And while there would have no doubt been nerves teeing it up for your side, the Ryder Cup is a completely different beast. It’s an event which stretches back to 1927 and has staged some of the most memorable moments in the sport including USA’s 19-9 thumping of Europe two years ago in Whistling Straits.

“It’s true, the US team is still a very strong team,” added Olazábal. “They proved so the last time around. We’re playing on home soil now though, so hopefully our players will deliver. I have full trust on that, hopefully we’ll win it back.”

Spaniards like Olazábal have been an integral part of Ryder Cup teams in the past and 2023 is likely to follow the same storyline. Many European hopes this year will fall on the shoulders of another player from Spain; Jon Rahm. “We all know how good a player he is,” said Olazábal of his fellow countryman. “He doesn’t stop battling, he’s fantastic. I believe we do have four, five great players at the moment that should make the team. Hopefully we will see some younger generation players raising the level and making the team. European rookies through the years have done pretty well.”

One of those potential fresh faces could be Adri Arnaus. The 28-year-old secured his maiden DP World Tour title last season to catapult himself into the limelight. He failed to make the Hero Cup squad, but he remains firmly inside the top 100 players of the world rankings, so remains in with a chance of making Luke Donald’s side. “He has potential to play and make the team,” said Olazábal. “No question about that. Obviously it’s a long way from here to September. It’s not going to be easy to make that group of 12 players, he’s going to have to play really, really well.”

While Olazábal will be watching the action unfold in Rome from the sidelines, he still continues to battle away at improving his own game. The two-time Masters winner triumphed 23 times on the DP World Tour during his career, and currently sits ninth in the all-time winners’ list. Despite dominance on the circuit, his progression onto the Legends Tour hasn’t been so profitable with his only top ten finish coming at the 2019 WINSTONgolf Senior Open.

“I need to raise my level as I’ve struggled lately, I have to say,” admitted Olazábal. “I took it easy through Christmas and have just started practicing again. The work I’ve started to put in this year has been quite positive. The quality of the shots are improving.”

Golf is one of the few sports in the world that gives opportunities for senior players to have genuine competition still with considerable prize purses.

Just because you’re in your 50s doesn’t mean you can’t compete – or even win. Think Phil Mickelson at the 2021 PGA Championship aged 50, or how close 59-year-old Tom Watson came to lifting a ninth Major in 2009 at Turnberry just to lose in a play-off. The intensity of life as a touring pro may soften as the years go by with a reduced schedule, but that competitive edge undoubtedly lives on.

“I just love the game,” added Olazábal. “I love practicing. I love the challenge it presents on the driving range and getting on the golf course every day. You just don’t know what’s going to happen regardless of how good you’re striping the ball. I enjoy it. I don’t have to push myself really to come here and practice. It’s something that I do happily. I spend quite a bit of time on the driving range and practicing and don’t see that changing soon.”

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