- Alistair Tait
The pride that drives José María Olazábal
José María Olazábal seemed to stand six inches taller. The look of defiance on his face was the mother of all don’t mess with me stares.
It’s why I’m not surprised the 55-year-old Spaniard made the final two rounds of this year’s Masters after seven straight years of missed cuts.
There is no quit in the two-time Masters winner. I discovered that long before he became a major champion.
Three hours with Olazábal in Southern Spain in the first year of my golf writing career gave me a unique insight into the mind of a champion. Today’s Golfer magazine, the first golf publication I worked for, had signed the Spaniard as a contributing writer. I had been tasked with ghost writing his instruction pieces. Good friend and world-renowned golf photographer Matthew Harris was assigned to take the pictures.
I was excited about a photo shoot with one of the game’s rising stars. I’m not sure Olazábal was; he didn’t speak to me for most of the three hours . When I asked him to explain how he was playing the shots I’d ask him to hit, he simply replied:
It was clear my series on how to play pitch, chip and bunker shots like José María Olazábal didn’t excite the man from Basque country. Thinking back on it now, I can see why. The Spaniard obviously couldn’t see the point of shots he could play with his eyes shut.
It wasn’t until I got to my planned trouble shot series that Olazábal perked up. I did the usual magazine fare of how to play from a plugged lie in a bunker, the high flop shot over a bunker, side hill lies in bunkers, etc. Then things got interesting.
Realising Olazábal was growing a wee bit irritated playing shots he saw as run of the mill, I decided to lay down the gauntlet.
The hole we were filming the shoot on had the steepest of banks to the left of the green. I placed a ball on the sheer slope. The shot Olazábal was facing was over a bunker to a tight pin, with a pond on the other side of the green. He looked at the lie, looked at me, and said:
I looked back at him and said:
“So if you had this lie in a tournament you’d declare it unplayable and take a one-shot penalty?”
Olazábal glared at me with a look of utter defiance. Then he settled over the ball, positioned his body with the slope and hit the shot. The ball landed just on the green and settled an inch from the hole.
That’s when he seemed to grow in stature and bored a steely look through me that could have melted ice. I was worried for life and limb when Matthew asked for one more take. I placed another ball near the spot where Olazábal had hit the first shot.
He holed this one. Again, another defiant glare, another increase in height.
That brought the photo shoot to an end. After three hours, Olazábal had got the better of some green-eyed golf writer who had the temerity to try to get one over on him. No way was he going to let that happen.
Olazábal probably doesn’t remember that photo shoot, but it was a seminal moment for me in understanding how the mind of a champion works. Attitude, grit, determination, perseverance, never say die are the all-important intangibles for champion sports people, champion golfers, every bit as important as swing mechanics and basics, probably more so.
As a Masters preview, I asked why players like Olazábal, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam still show up at Augusta every year when they have no chance of winning, when they were so far past their best. I should have remembered that photo shoot with Olazábal.
They still love the challenge. They still want to test themselves, still love the fight. Even though they have no chance of winning, making the cut is a victory in itself. Woosnam and Lyle didn’t win that battle. Olazábal did despite no competitive golf since the Masters last November. While he knew he was just going to make up the numbers on a golf course that is now far too long for him, playing all four rounds these days is a victory in his world:
“It's like winning the event,” he said.
Who knows how long Olazábal will play in the Masters? Even he can’t answer that question.
“The game will dictate. It's as simple as that,” he said.
As with all great champions, there’s an inner pride that still drives him on. Hope it drives him on just a wee bit longer.
#JustSaying: “I miss him, I have to say, especially around here, because I know that he would be enjoying every part of being here.” Olazábal on making the cut on Seve Ballesteros’s birthday