Olazabal picks his three most likely European Masters successors
Augusta remains the only bastion still to be conquered to complete the current domination of world golf by European players.
The record books have to be leafed through back to 1999 to find the last European, the Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, to be handed a winning Masters Green Jacket.
However, as the first of the year’s four golfing Majors approaches, Europe’s present Ryder Cup captain identified the three members of his team whom he believes have the best chance of emulating his success at Augusta.
Yet as he put forward the names of Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, none of them at first glance would appear to have quite the same battling qualities that enabled Olazabal to win at Augusta in 1994 and 1999.
“To win the Masters you have got to drive the ball well and be able to shape the ball from right to left,” Olazabal said. “Mind you, I didn’t drive the ball well at all that week but I got through it because I putted well and that is the absolute key on those greens. I made a lot of good par saves in every round.”
That assessment of his own performance is an interesting contrast to the talents of McIlroy, who was Olazabal’s first choice to win this year 12 months after throwing away a four-shot lead going into the final round in 2011.
“Of the Europeans, you have got to look at Rory because of his fantastic ball-striking,” Olazabal said. “My one worry would be his putting. It can be a bit hit and miss but if has a week where his putter is working well he is going to be right up there.”
Olazabal’s own big worry 13 years ago was his fitness because for several years he had been suffering from a mystery lower-back ailment which was threatening to end his career. But he overcame the pain on the hills of Augusta with dogged determination and going head to head in the final round with Greg Norman, he actually enjoyed spending a few hours on the golf course with the Australian who had spent so much time in the pre-Tiger Woods era at the top of the world rankings.
“I think it really helped playing with Greg,” he recalled. “He was just so easy to get on with and that took a lot of the pressure off me.”
And while McIlroy may have to fight to cut out the bad memories of his final-round collapse last year, Olazabal has no doubts about the mental strength of the second European candidate he nominated.
“Of the younger players, you also have to look at Martin Kaymer,” he said. “He has spent a long time now working hard on the shaping of his shots and every part of his game is strong.
“But with Martin there is one other important part of his game. That is his calm temperament. However big the tournament he does not let anything get to him and in a Major that can be vital.”
Of the older European players, Olazabal surprisingly did not mention Luke Donald, who after his win in the BMW Championship at Wentworth last summer went on to create a substantial lead at the top of the world rankings while winning the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
But that choice may have involved an element of psychology as he looked back on one of the more interesting motivational aids he had in 1999.
Although he had shot a 66 on the Friday, which was to be the lowest round of the tournament, and by Saturday night had a one-shot advantage at the top of the leaderboard, few rated Olazabal’s chances of winning.
A panel of experts on The Golf Channel did not even mention his name as they discussed the potential winners. “That really upset Sergio, my manager,” Olazabal recalled. “It didn’t hit me quite as bad, but I was certainly pleased to prove them wrong.”
Perhaps Donald will be similarly inspired. But Olazabal instead picked out Westwood, whom Donald dethroned as world number one, as a potential winner. “Of the older European players I have to think of Lee,” he said. “He has gone so close there in the past [finishing second to Phil Mickelson in 2010]. He knows everything about the course and when he is on top of his game there aren’t any weaknesses.”
Inevitably, the name of Tiger Woods will be thrown into the ring especially since he managed to contend and finish fourth last year when he was sinking down the world rankings.
But last year’s winner, Charl Schwartzel, firmly believes he can become the first player since Woods in 2002 to successfully defend the title. “I definitely feel my game is in the right shape,” the South African said. “I feel the way I am striking the ball keeps on improving.
“I used to be too impatient for a tough course like that but I have now gone forward. I am definitely ready for it. Augusta is a lot to do with the greens and you need to putt really well to be able to win around there.
“I just can’t wait to get back there and start practising on those really fast greens again. I want to do that and find the consistency and touch I had last year. If I get that, I am very confident I can defend the title.”
On a lighter note, Schwartzel may have a cunning plan up his sleeve to give some of his rivals an uncomfortable time.
Each year the defending champion is asked to pick the menu for the champions dinner on the eve of the tournament and the 27-year-old has told the tournament committee he wants to hold a traditional South African braai (barbeque).
Apart from being prepared to cook the meat himself for the other former champions he also wants to be able to marinate it in a hot and spicy sauce made up from his own secret recipe.
“My good friend Louis Oosthuizen likes it a lot,” said Schwartzel. But that is no guarantee it will be to everyone’s taste.
This article was written by Graham Otway for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.