José María Olazábal

Paul Prendergast talks to Europe's 2012 Ryder Cup captain on the eve of arguably his most important season yet

Jose Maria OlazabalOn the 27th August, José María Olazábal will announce his two wildcard picks to complete the 12-man European team that will travel to Medinah Country Club near Chicago to defend the trophy against the United States one month later. The date of the announcement is important because it will avoid the delicate – and downright ridiculous – situation Colin Montgomerie found himself in 2010 when he was forced to make his selections while potential team members, most notably Justin Rose and Paul Casey, were midway through a tournament on the PGA Tour.

"We're going to wait until whatever happens in the States before we make the decision," Olazábal said on the eve of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at the end of January. “Looking at it when it happened [two years previously], it was not a comfortable situation for anybody. Anyone playing in the States, who might be on the verge of winning and changing his chances of being in the team – it would be completely unfair to name those two picks before the guy even tees off."

This common sense decision will be popular amongst players and is yet another example of why Olazábal 's election to the captaincy was greeted with such enthusiasm when it was made last year.

While Olazábal is still active on tour, the two-time Masters champion will not be tempted – like so many before him – into trying to make a run at making the team as a player. It's all about the captaincy. But on that playing front, he has taken positive steps forward on the comeback trail, following long-term bouts of severe rheumatism and tendinitis that threatened to end his career all together.

Last month, the Spaniard shot a brilliant eight-under-par 65 on his way to finishing sixth at the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancout in South Africa, an event that featured a limited but quality-packed field. It was a performance, Olazábal observed, that has done wonders for his confidence but this Hall of Famer is very much a realist. "The journey has only just started," he said.

The Spaniard marked the "Year Out" countdown to the Ryder Cup by thumping golf balls from the 16th floor of a skyscraper in Chicago, host city of September's biennial event
First and foremost, how is your health?
My health is improving. Obviously I still have a few aches here and there but overall I felt some improvement since Hong Kong last year. I've been able to practice a little bit more and exercise a little bit. I still can't lift weights and things like that, but I have been able to run a little bit and do things that I haven't been able to do for three years now.

It must have been extremely encouraging to start the year off playing so well in South Africa, against such a quality field on a quality golf course.
Yes, it was encouraging, and it's something that a player needs to see in order to get a little bit of the confidence back. It's true that it was a small field, but as you said, it was a strong field and a tough golf course. So that made every shot, every round even better.

Does that performance change your outlook for the year in terms of how often you'll play, or is your schedule purely driven by the Ryder Cup and by your health?
By my health mainly. My schedule is going to be based by that and the Ryder Cup. Not so much by my scoring. Obviously I'm going to try to play as much as I can. I'm going to try to be close to the players so that they see me, if they need to talk to me or they feel like talking to me or asking any questions or whatever, so I can be there for them. That's the idea.

But does a result like the one you had at Fancourt alter your expectations with regard to winning on tour again, or have you always maintained that fire in your belly?
I've always maintained that fire in the belly. But the result itself, it doesn't change anything, because I'm more concerned about the journey that I have to do to get there, to get to the winner's circle again. I don't know how long the journey is going to be, but I know it's a journey that has only just started. So I'm going to keep on working hard on my game, if I can, and try to improve certain areas of my game that I know I need to improve. Somehow I can do it on the driving range, but it's harder for me to take it on to the golf course and that's what I have to do.

Perhaps the 2010 Ryder Cup assistant's magic will rub off on you – Bjorn, Clarke and Garcia all winning in 2011 ...

Well, hopefully so! We'll see. Those guys are playing well. Darren [Clarke] won The Open last year, Thomas [Bjorn] won two tournaments in a row, won three tournaments during the season. Sergio got his game back, winning two tournaments in a row in Spain. He seems to be in a better frame of mind on the golf course, which is I think very important. I think that's the only thing important in his case, because from tee to green, he's a great player, and as soon as that ball drops in the hole quick enough, the results are going to be there. But it’s not just them. There are a lot of guys that are doing their homework. Rory [McIlroy] Luke [Donald], Lee [Westwood], Martin Kaymer. There is a bunch of players that are doing well. It's true that it's early days but hopefully as you said, the magic that was there at Celtic Manor will follow me in 2012.

It's too early to tell what the team will look like but with so many Europeans at the top of the world rankings, it's likely to be a formidable lineup ...
I think European golf is going through a golden stage in its history. It's similar to the late 80s, early 90s when we had Seve [Ballesteros] and Woosie [Ian Woosnam], Nick [Faldo], Bernhard [Langer], Sandy [Lyle] – the Big Five.

And yourself ...
In a little way, yeah. I think we are going through a very sweet moment. It's true that it will be important to have those players for the Ryder Cup but what really counts is that those players play well enough [to earn points].

You're obviously a veteran of the Ryder Cup as a player but sitting in the captain's chair, can you tell us how the responsibilities impact on you this far out?
Well, this far out, you know you have to be careful on what you say, what you do. There is a lot of media attention and so on. For instance, when we went to Chicago last September for the “Year Out” function, the media attention was huge there. You had things to do: Hit a shot from the 16th floor of Trump Tower, which was very windy, and actually I think [US captain] Davis [Love III] and myself were under a lot of pressure from the fire department chief! But, you know, up to now, the responsibility has been mainly off the course doing meetings, making decisions regarding clothing and golf bags and attire and things like that. But I think as the day gets closer, obviously that attention will change from being outside the golf course to the golf course.

Sergio seems to love Medinah [Garcia was second in the 1999 PGA Championship and tied third at the 2006 PGA). Donald has played well there too. So it's a venue with some good vibes for you and for your key players?
Well, there are 12 players on the team. Obviously Luke is a local. He lives next door. He knows the course well. Sergio, as you said, feels comfortable on that golf course. But it's 12 players, so everybody has to win points. This is a team event. It's true that on Sunday we play 12 singles matches. It's an important day. But everyone has to contribute during that week.

You wouldn't want to put any pressure on some players at the start of their season regarding their need to lift their game and so forth, but how is the buzz amongst the players now that the event is only eight months away?
Well, I think I'm saying this from my own experience. I'm pretty sure that the Ryder Cup is in the back of their minds every week. I know they are going to try hard to be in that team, because they love playing the Ryder Cup. I have no doubts about that. All of them want to be in that team, and from that point of view, I know they are going to be really trying hard. So that is not a concern to me. And I know they are going to be really working their backsides off to make that team.

Comparing their stocks midway through 2011 to now, the outlook for the US team has certainly skyrocketed with the arrival of Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, the maturing of Bubba Watson and the veterans gelling well with the youngsters ...
Well, I kept an eye on The Presidents Cup in Australia. I think they did a good job, and I know Freddie [Couples], he's a good friend of Davis, so I'm pretty sure there will be some information going from one end to the other. And it's true that the US team is getting stronger in the sense that there are a lot of young kids that are doing great things. But it's been like that in the US Team every year. I mean, they have always been very, very strong, and I don't think this is going to be an exception to that.

Of course, it would seem one ‘T Woods’ has his mojo back. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the early months of the year after such a good finish in 2011 ...
He finished well. I've always said that even though he's had his troubles for different reasons the last couple of years, I've always believed that he still has the desire to be a force in this game and to beat Jack Nicklaus's record. And I don't have any doubts that he's going to be in that team, and that he's going to be a strong asset to the US.

Enjoying a laugh with his US counterpart Davis Love III

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