Up, down and back – golfer Jose Maria Olazabal – Interview

The simple tastes and rollercoaster career of Spain’s ‘other’ superstar — Jose Maria Olazabal

Strange guy,” super-agent Mark McCormack says of Jose Maria Olazabal. “He just doesn’t care about the money he could be making.” Indeed, indifference to the lure of the peseta, dollar and pound is just one of the things that sets the 1994 Masters champion apart. On the course, there’s his driving. He is, without question, the worst driver of a golf ball among the world’s best golfers. Then again, if you put the top-100 players in the middle of every fairway 150 yards from the green, Olazabal would win almost every week.

Off the course, Olazabal eschews the lifestyle of the self-made millionaire in favor of time at home with his friends and family. “Chemma,” 33, still lives with his parents in the close-knit fishing village

of Fuenterrabia in northern Spain, where he was born. He guards his privacy with relentless zeal. When an American journalist flew uninvited to Spain to interview Olazabal, all he got was a polite refusal over the intercom at the gate to the family home. No amount of pleading made any difference. When Jose Maria says something, it stays said.

Contributing Editor John Huggan coaxed Olazabal into four sessions of interviews over the last year on the PGA European Tour. Olazabal’s accented English is well practiced but not quite perfect; oftentimes, he struggles to find the exact right words, and “you have to say what he’s trying to say,” reports Huggan. “Once he hears it, he knows it. He said, ‘Correct’ a lot.”

Their conversations, beginning and ending in Dubai, covered everything from Olazabal’s simple tastes to Seve Ballesteros and the Ryder Cup to the mysterious and career-threatening injury that put Olazabal on the sidelines for more than a year in the mid-’90s. Eventually Olazabal grew to enjoy the give-and-take process and let us in a little closer to the world he inhabits.

GOLF DIGEST: How many ways have you had your name pronounced over the years?

OLAZABAL: I would say three or four: O-LATH-uh-bal, Ola-ZA-bal, Ola-SA- bel. How do you say it?


With the emphasis on the middle.


Does it bother you that people get it wrong?

No. I don’t even try to keep them right. I’m a foreigner. I understand that it’s difficult. It would be as difficult for me to pronounce the surname of a Swedish guy. Why do people call you Chemma? It’s just a short way to say Jose Maria back in Spain.

Can you describe your childhood?

I was born on a farm. We were far from the city. The closest house was like 100 yards away. I was raised more or less on my own, although I do have a sister, younger than I am.

Was she your closest friend?

Well, she was and she still is. We really have good times together. We played together. There was nobody else to play with. Our parents worked hard. My grandfather was the greenkeeper on the golf course and my father used to work there. I was born the day after the course opened.

When my grandfather died, my father took his place. And somebody gave a club to my father to cut down. I have pictures of myself hitting a few balls. I spent most of the time playing on my own.

You’re now 33 and yet you still live at home with your parents. Why?

That is much more common in Spain than it is in America. We are very attached to each other. lus, many families in Spain have trouble finding work. It’s an economic thing, too. Things are better in Spain these days, but in some areas jobs can be hard to find. Does your mother spoil you? I would say so [big grin]. She takes care of me so well. She knows what I like. And everything I want is there. I’ll never complain about that.

Any disadvantages? Loss of privacy?

No, no. It’s a big house. I have my own section where I can be alone. I have my own lounge and bedroom where I can watch television, listen to music or exercise. What are your luxuries? Not much. I’m not one for material things. So how do you spend your time when you’re not playing golf? During the season, when I’m home I stay there. I go to the cinema [action movies]. I go for the walk around. I listen to music — pop music, in general. But mainly watching TV. I like watching doc- umentaries and The Discovery Chan-nel. And we like to go out for dinner. That’s a quiet existence. Very quiet. I have simple tastes. Does that run in your family? Yes, but then I’m the first one in my family who has had any option. Until me, we’ve been very poor and had to work all day long to survive. What is so great about the area in which you live? It’s nice. It’s very difficult for outsiders to be accepted. We’re not that open to people. I’m like that, too. It takes us a while to give our confidence to somebody else, to consider them a friend. But once that barrier is broken, it is 100 percent and there are no secrets. The countryside is beautiful. The beaches are great and we have the mountains, too. I can spend a couple of hours, three hours, walking up in the mountains.

Do you see the day when you will join the U.S. tour?

I’ve had the chance and I’ve refused.

I’m not saying I’m not going to join the U.S. tour. The strongest reason I don’t go to America is because I don’t feel as much at home as I feel playing here in Europe. That’s the only reason.

What do you like most and least about golf and staying in America?

Most, I would say without a doubt all the facilities, the condition of the golf courses. They absolutely take care of you 100 percent. What I like the least is the food. What don’t you like about it? The way it’s cooked. In Spain, we use olive oil to cook and on salads. Most of the salads there are Ranch or whatever dressing that is. Then when you ask for a menu or whatever — the size of those things! I like things plain. I don’t want to see all that. When you’re staying in a hotel for a week and you have the same menu every day, by the time you get to Friday . . . You don’t feel like you should bring your mom along? No, no [smiles]. You won the Masters five years ago. When did you first feel there was a problem with your feet?

It was a tiny problem when I played in the Masters, in ’93 I think it was. I had a little problem with my big toe. Just an ache, but it went away in a few days. In ’94, as the season went on, the problem appeared again and it got a little worse and a little worse. By the time I played the Match Play with Ernie Els, I couldn’t walk properly. So you won the Masters with it?

Yeah, but then around June, July, it started to get worse. I was walking badly and it was affecting the muscles and everything. That winter it didn’t get any better, so I went to see a doctor and had surgery done on my big toe. When I started practicing, everything seemed to be OK. But when I started to play golf . . .

This is the start of ’95?

Yes. The problems started again. Just on the toes of my right foot. The second toe is just like a hammertoe.

When did you stop playing?

That was Lancome, the end of ’95. It was very painful.

You eventually got misdiagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, for which there is no cure.

Correct. I went to the States, same thing. I was taking medicines and it didn’t seem to improve. It got more painful up to a point that I could not walk. The Adidas people called my manager [Sergio Gomez] and asked if there was any chance for me to go to Munich. They felt that they could build a shoe to relieve some of the pain. When I got there, they mentioned a German doctor [Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt]. I said, “Well, I have nothing to lose. I’ve tried everything else.”

He sent me to different doctors to get blood tests done, all kinds of things. Then he came up and said, “I believe that it’s not what has been diagnosed. I think there’s another problem here, and I believe we can solve the situation.”

That must have been a big moment.

I was a bit skeptical. Well, he put me on a training program, an exercise program. He gave me injections in my lower back. It was very painful at the very start.

The injections?

The exercises. My feet were hurting. I had to exercise again to strengthen all the muscles and the ligaments. Then I started to play golf again at Dubai in ’97. What was the diagnosis in the end?

According to the doctor, the problem was caused in my lower back, between a couple of vertebrae that were pinching some of the nerves. It was from birth.

Why was this never spotted before?

Nobody looked there.

Did this destroy your faith in doctors? Not really. I think it’s just a matter of getting the right guy.

What was your lowest point?

During that summer of ’96. I thought that I would never be able to play golf again. That was a real chance. But I was more worried about the quality of my life. It was harder thinking about that than imagining or thinking about the possibility of not playing golf again. I thought that in a few years time, I wouldn’t be able to walk again.

You must have had some emotional times with your parents.

There were a lot of days I had to crawl to the bathroom. I didn’t want them to see that. They knew what I was doing, but it was hard enough for them just to know the situation. You just had to look at their eyes.

You never had to have a wheelchair?

No, no.

Was there a time during those three months where you broke down? I had terrible times during those 18 months. I did cry, but not much. Maybe a couple of times during the night, usually when I went to bed, just before falling asleep, I started to think about it. It was more of a depression. It gets you down, very low. How did you cope? It’s hard to explain. You have to be in that situation. We really don’t know our limits as human beings until we’re faced with something as bad as that. Are you different now than before you were hurt?

I think so. On the course, I’m more patient. I don’t get so angry with myself. I try to behave better. Off the course, I appreciate things more now. Things I used to take for granted. Health is so precious, and sometimes we forget how valuable it is.

Did some of the players come to see you?

Some of them wanted to, but there was no point.

You got to the point where you didn’t want to sit and talk to the press.

I remember reading things that were so silly. Like that I had AIDS. Or that I was very fat. Those guys who wrote those things would someday realize how stupid they were.

Did that keep you from wanting to talk about it?

The best thing to do is just try to not say a single word.

Did you talk to anyone about what you were going through? What for? It doesn’t make any sense. You just try to hide your emotions.

There was talk of you playing by using a cart or even a horse. . . . That was a joke. The rules say you cannot use anything mechanical, and we were trying to be funny.

Where did you stand on the Casey Martin issue? I played with him in the U.S. Open last year. He clearly has the game, but he is physically limited. To tell you the truth, from my point of view — and I have nothing against Casey — I feel that carts should not be allowed. We have to play in extreme heat, wet, whatever. So you have to be physically prepared. If Casey gets a buggy, it puts us all in the position of being able to ask for one, too.

How much money did you lose during your absence from the game?

I don’t even think about it. I don’t care. I accept the situation that I went through. There was nothing I could do about it.

You don’t think about money much, do you?

No. Maybe because I have enough.

Do you know how much you make?

He knows [points to Gomez, his manager,sitting in on this part of the interview].

But do you know how much money you’ve got?

More or less.

And you know where it is?

Yes. Looking back, what were your main thoughts and feelings after winning the Masters?

First thing was a big relief. I was close three years before at Augusta. You always have in the back of your mind that you’re one of the best players who hasn’t won a major event. Does that title really annoy people?

It didn’t annoy me. But the longer the time, the pressure builds. You don’t know what can happen in the future. You have to take the chances whenever they come your way.

Did you feel like you should have won in 1991, when Ian Woosnam did — given that you had a 7 on a par 3 [the sixth hole in the second round]?

Yes, but that’s the game of golf. If I hadn’t taken a 7 on that hole, maybe I would have never scored the way I did afterward in that round. I got those shots back. It forced me to play aggressively. How disappointed were you in ’91? It hurt a bit. But not too much. I was never in the [outright] lead. I was even with Tom Watson and Ian Woosnam. I was playing 18, and they were teeing off behind me. So it’s different. The situation is different if you’re leading. Even if I had made a par on 18, I still would have had to go into a playoff. It’s not as bad as it could be.

Describe your eagle at 15 in the last round of your victory in 1994.

At the time it was virtually between Tom Lehman and me. Obviously the key hole was 15. We both hit good drives. I was first to hit. I hit a 5-iron. Had to hit it really good, right in the middle of the clubface. I didn’t want to go over the green. When I hit it, I have to be honest, I never thought it would have been that close to being in the water. I thought it was going to bounce on the green. But it didn’t. It stayed on the fringe [30 feet]. Tom hit a wonderful second shot to about nine feet or so. Did you feel like you had to hole first? Not really. Even if I missed and he made his, we were still even. Three holes to go. It was not a must situation.

It was never all that tough a putt. The only thing that I had to get by was the fringe, because it was a straight putt. I made it, and after that, Tom hit a wonderful putt, just touched the hole and it never went in. You need to be lucky to win tournaments. Do you feel like the Masters is your best chance to win a major? Yeah, because my driving is not all that good. Obviously, maybe the British Open, too. The U.S. Open and the PGA, you really have to drive the ball well. I need to improve in that area if I want to be able to do well in those two.

The toughest part for me and the reason I’m not driving the ball is, my shoulder turn is not proper.

You tilt?

It tilts a little bit and then the driver goes a little too steep from there. That has been my problem virtually all my life. I’m pretty good with the irons. The angle is more direct to the ball. The idea when I’m standing over the ball with a driver in my hands is just that one. Make a proper turn. I know that I have to improve that part of my game. I know that is a fact. It’s pretty obvious. If you want to try to compete against the best . . . I’ve played with Davis Love [III], Lee Janzen, Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo. I mean all these players. And they all drive it better?

Everybody. You don’t have to be an extremely good driver to be better than

I am. Let’s talk a bit about Seve Ballesteros and the Ryder Cup. How long have you known Seve?

The first time I saw him was when he played a tournament back at my club. At that time, I think I was 7 years old. They played a small tournament and he played there. The first time I met Seve I was 16. He had a charity thing back home. He asked me if I wanted to play a match with him and try to raise some money for the charity.

I was delighted. I was shocked he asked me. You can imagine how nervous I was. It poured, too. I mean, it rained all day long. It was unbelievable. But we managed to play 18 holes. I really have a wonderful memory of that.

How big a figure is Seve in Spain, to the average person on the street? He’s a popular figure, but nothing compared to what he would have been if he’d been born in Britain. When he won the British Open, they [Spanish media] never showed a single picture of him on television or in the papers. Virtually nobody knew about golf.

What sort of sport in Spain would golf equate to in the U.S.? Badminton or squash, say? Something like that, even less, even to a lower level, at that time anyway.

Has the Ryder Cup’s visit to Spain in 1997 made a difference in the number of Spaniards playing golf? Not really. At least not in the way it should have.

Your Ryder Cup partnership with Seve over the years — the Spanish Armada — was clearly something special [the pair’s record is 11-2-2]. How did that evolve?

The first time we played together was ’87. I was very young, 21 at that time. First Ryder Cup for me, no experience at all. I think Seve virtually made the decision that he wanted to play with me. That made things much easier for me to start with. In what way?

Because he was at that time one of the best players. And he took all the pressure off me. When we stood on that first tee, he said, “Don’t worry about anything. You just hit the ball and try to do your best and that’s it. Forget about the people and everything.”

Was that 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village the best you have played in?

It was very good to win there [in the United States] for the first time. I think that year, the team was very, very good; Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam. I think we had six or seven players who were extremely good.

What do you remember about your little dance on the final green? It seems out of character. Would you do that now?

I don’t know, it depends on the situation. At that time, first Ryder Cup for me, never won there before and the group was a very close one. It felt like being within a family, and I was very relaxed on that green. It’s something you don’t think about. It just happens.

It apparently annoyed a couple of American players.

Well, I’m sorry if it did. It was not my intention at all.

Paul Azinger has spoken about it. He took that very personally, felt it was disrespectful. I cannot say anything about it. I’m just sorry that was the situation. I have to say that my intention was not at all to upset any of the American players or the public. It was just one of those things.

Why does it mean so much? It’s pride more than anything else. We have always been the underdogs. The Americans have always been the strongest and the best. To play against them on level terms and to succeed is huge for us. That’s how I see it. I have always said that I like to compete against the best, and they are the strongest team on paper every time.

Do you find yourself fighting for the European tour as well? In a sense, yes. We’re not as good a tour as they are. You know there is that chance to say, “Here we are, too.” Relations seem to have improved since ’91. I think most of it came from them really. I think that they realized what happened in ’91 was very bad. It was not fair. I think Tom Watson’s captaincy in ’93 was a very good one, because he is loved over here. Nobody would criticize him. He is a gentleman. He was a great choice.

How was Seve as a captain?

From my point of view, he was wonderful. He got the best out of us. He did a wonderful job and we won. Who could ask for anything else?

How was he in a team environment? Did he give inspiring pep talks?

No. He is either up there or down here. But at Valderrama he was positive all the way.

It seemed like he was everywhere on the course.

That’s what I read. I don’t know. I think newspapers like to overdo the comments a little bit. I think it was not as much as the newspapers said.

Let’s hit on some other topics. These new World Golf Championships — do you think they are good or bad for the European tour? I’ve always said that a World Tour will happen. It is just a matter of time. Every sport is moving in that direction. And we have to be prepared and part of it. We have to think of the spectators and television viewers. They want to see the best players in the world playing against each other more often.

The European tour, however, could evolve into a two-tier system whereby some tournaments have all the top players and others have none. Will the sponsors put up with that? That will happen. But there’s nothing to be done about it. Besides, there will never be World Tour events every week. The top players will still have time to support the European tour. The schedule can be set up that way. Will more be asked of the top group of players then?

Of course. I’m ready to do so. If there are, say, 20 World Tour events, I don’t have to play in all of them. I could play 12 or 15, which would give me time to support my own tour. Should these big money, limited- field events count for Ryder Cup points and the European Order of Merit? This was talked about last year. I think it’s unfair that they should count. I’m in the group of players who will be able to play in them, and that gives me a great chance to gain a lot of Ryder Cup points. That is obviously unfair when others cannot do the same. Qualifying for a team should be done on a level playing field. What the tour has done is cap the amount of points you can win in a world event. But they’re still worth a lot more than most European events. Doesn’t this point of view put you in the minority among the top players? If you look at it from a selfish point of view, most players would say, “OK, I’m in and that’s fine.” Why don’t you? I think we have to make it fair for all. It’s that simple. What about the sponsors who have no chance to get any of the top players in their fields; how do you hold onto them? That is a problem you can never solve. The cleverest guy in the world couldn’t get any of the top players to compete in Europe in March, for example. The best are all in Florida at that time of year. That isn’t going to go away. We just have to make the best of it. The world ranking — are we any closer to the system working properly? Not at the moment. This is another thing we [the European players] talked about last year. We’re trying to somehow make it more equal for us compared with the States. Our points system in Europe doesn’t reward us as much as it should. I think that the European tour is tough. Not as tough as America — that’s pretty obvious — but the level of the game here has improved more than the ranking system would have you believe. All you have to do is look at the scores every week. Here [at the Dubai Desert Classic] there were over 70 players within five strokes of the lead after one round. And this is a very difficult course. You’re ranked around 30 right now. Is that realistic? You’re better than that, surely. I’m a bad example. I lost so many points when I could not play for so long. Then I had to virtually start again. But there are plenty of anomalies. Look at Mark O’Meara last year. He won two majors, lots of money, yet still never managed to reach No. 1. What would you do to change the system? Counting two years of golf is too much. It should be cut down to a year. That would make it more fair and more accurately reflect reality at any given time. Right now, you can have a great year, then play not so good the next year and almost get away with it. You were once considered a phenom, the next Seve or great European.

How good is Sergio Garcia, who is now getting the same kind of hype?

Extremely good. He has played all over the world and proved that. He is very mature for his age and has the potential to be a great player. Better than you and Seve? To be better than Seve is difficult [smiles].

What is your perspective on Tiger Woods?

He has proved already that he is a wonderful player. Everybody has talked a lot about his game. He is very powerful. He has a great touch around the greens. Maybe the only thing wrong with him is sometimes he has trouble a little bit with the distance of his short irons. That’s maybe his weakest part.

He has yet to prove that he can win on a golf course with a lot of rough.

He hasn’t had all that much time to prove that. Let’s put everything in perspective here. I mean, this is his third year as a professional. From my point of view, it’s not fair to make those comments. Why don’t we give him four, five, six years and see how he does on those types of golf courses? Often the best thing to do is just wait and see how it develops.

You once said it is easy for you to get a girl but hard to get a girlfriend. Does that still apply?

Yes, I would say so. Do you see a day when you will get married?

I believe so, yes. At the moment, I find it a bit difficult to keep a relationship for long, because I spend a lot of time away from home. Whenever I go back home, I don’t feel like going out, either. It is very difficult. . . .

You just want to be home.

Correct. It’s very difficult to keep and maintain a relationship with a person.

But you do see that in your future?

Yes. I love family. I love kids. I enjoy very much spending time with the kids. Why not, yes. Sure.

After all you’ve been through, do you find it easier to laugh at things now?

Well, you laugh about situations, yes. But on the golf course, I don’t think you see me smile too much unless the situation is pretty much relaxed. If we get to that point where you’re in contention to win, I don’t think you see me smiling very much.

Have you ever given up on the golf course?

There are certain moments when things are going wrong. No matter how hard you’re trying, everything is going wrong. I think, “What the hell am I doing here? There is no point to keep on trying; everything is going wrong.” But that’s just a split second. I have always tried to do the best I can.

The Olazabal file

Birth date: Feb. 5, 1966

Birthplace, residence: Fuenterrabia, Spain

Height: 5-foot-10 Weight: 160

Turned professional: 1985

PGA Tour victories: 4

1990-NEC World Series of Golf

1991-The International

1994-Masters, NEC World Series of Golf

European victories: 17

1986-Ebel European Masters/Swiss Open, Sanyo Open

1988-Volvo Belgian Open, German Masters

1989-Tenerife Open, KLM Dutch Open

1990-Benson and Hedges International Open, Carrolls Irish Open, Trophee Lancome

1991-Open Catalonia, Epson Grand Prix of Europe

1992-Turespana Open de Tenerife, Open Mediterrania

1994-Turespana Open Mediterrania, Volvo PGA Ch.

1997-Turespana Masters

1998-Dubai Desert Cl.

Other victories: ’89, ’90 Visa Taiheiyo Masters

National teams

Ryder Cup: 1987-3-2-0; 1989-4-0-1; 1991-3-1-1; 1993-2-3-0; 1997-2-2-1. Totals-14-8-3.

Dunhill Cup: 1986- 0-1; 1987-1-1; 1988-3-1; 1989-1-0; 1992-2-1; 1993-3-0; 1998-3-2. Totals-13-6.

COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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