Interview: Jose Maria Olazabal hails Scots’ grit

PICKING the perfect time to have a Ryder Cup chinwag with Jose Maria Olazabal in Durban last week wasn’t easy. With a few exceptions, players are never too keen to stop and chat after they’ve played poorly and, after sandwiching a brace of 77s between two 73s, “Chema” finished last in the Volvo Golf Champions for the second year running.
JoseMaria Olazabal was happy to talk about the forthcoming Ryder Cup. Picture: GettyJoseMaria Olazabal was happy to talk about the forthcoming Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty
JoseMaria Olazabal was happy to talk about the forthcoming Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty

“My game is awful,” declared the Spaniard, having given this correspondent sufficient encouragement to test the water by recording six birdies in the final round at Durban Country Club. “Everything is off – driving, irons, the lot,” he added. “There is no sign of improvement, so it’s back to the drawing board.”

Olazabal, of course, is long enough in the tooth to know that an approach by a Scottish journalist at such an event was likely to have a hidden agenda and, perhaps because it helped him forget about his own game for a bit, Europe’s captain for the Miracle at Medinah was perfectly happy to offer some insightful thoughts on this September’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.

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What, for instance, did he think of Marc Warren’s unbeaten performance under Olazabal’s captaincy in another European side that pulled off a last-day fightback to win the Royal Trophy in China the week before Christmas?

“I saw Marc at both the Seve Trophy and Royal Trophy last year and there’s no doubt he is improving as a golfer because he was comfortable on both those stages,” observed Olazabal of the two-times European Tour winner. Warren’s second triumph was, in fact, recorded on the PGA Centenary Course set to stage Scotland’s first Ryder Cup since 1973.

“But it is going to be very tough for the likes of him, Paul Lawrie and any of the other Scots to get on the team for Gleneagles because you need to do well in the big events. There are probably 12-14 of them over the course of the year and you need to perform well in them to make the team these days.

“That’s where the main points are and it’s not easy to make an impression on the list if you’re not in those events. As an example, Miguel [Angel Jimenez] won the Hong Kong Open at the end of last year, but he didn’t move up much at all.”

One player badly needing to make a significant upward move over the course of the European Tour’s Middle East Swing, which starts on Thursday with the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, is Lawrie, who played his part in that memorable last-day turnaround in Chicago by thumping Brandt Snedeker, who’d just been crowned as the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup champion a few days earlier.

“It was no surprise to me that Paul beat Snedeker in the singles at Medinah,” reflected Olazabal, who paid a special visit to Aberdeen last year to play Lawrie in a challenge match at his Golf Centre on the outskirts of the Granite City. “Paul can beat anybody – even Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson – over 18 holes on any given day.

“I had a chat with Paul over at the Royal Trophy and, from tee to green, he’s still got the game. It’s as good as anyone else’s and, being long enough as well, he doesn’t lack any tools. From what I saw over in China, it was his putting stroke that let him down.

“If Paul can improve that area of his game, he’ll do okay. It’s simply a case of trying to reduce his number of putts by a couple each round as eight shots in a week is a lot.”

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Olazabal’s successor, Paul McGinley, has yet to name his assistant captains, having decided to hold off until the middle of this year to see which players are to the forefront in the battle for nine automatics spots as well as three wildcards.

“I think the heat starts to turn up for the captain in May or June,” said Olazabal, who has not ruled himself out of being a right-hand man on this occasion.

“There will always be players who can relax as the qualifying campaign unfolds as they’ve done their work.

“Look at Henrik Stenson, he did well in six or seven events in the second half of last season and he’s pretty much sealed his place.

“But there will also be a group of players heading into the final few events needing to do well. Events like the Irish, French and Scottish Opens will all be big ones, for example, and that’s when the captain will be looking very closely to what is happening.”

Despite finishing joint fifth as home favourite Louis Oosthuizen won the European Tour’s “Tournament of Champions” for the second year running in Durban, Padraig Harrington reckons he’s still a long shot to simply have a chance of securing a seventh Ryder Cup appearance.

“I would hope so,” replied the three-times major winner to being asked if he felt that he had one more crack at the biennial contest left in his tank. “But I’m in a tough position to make the team at present – well behind the eight-ball. I reckon I’ve got more chance of winning a major this year than making the Ryder Cup but, then, that would put me in that position.

“I’ll certainly be trying hard. Even though I’ve not played well there in the past, I’ll be at Wentworth for this year’s PGA Championship and I’ll be playing in other marquee events in Europe in a bid to make myself noticed. Sometimes you can go over to the States and do okay but not be seen.”