I was fortunate enough to have a chat about golf the other week with José Maria Olazábal, the two-time Masters champion and the victorious Ryder Cup captain after Europe secured a remarkable success at Medinah, Chicago, in 2012, converting a 10-6 overnight deficit into a one-point triumph.
‘Ollie’ had a formidable reputation as a Ryder Cup player, too. In partnership with fellow Spaniard, the sadly late and sensationally great Seve Ballesteros, over 15 matches in fourballs and foursomes their record was 11-2-2. One of those 11 wins came against Paul Azinger and Chip Beck in an acrimonious foursomes on the first day of the 1991 match, the so-called ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah Island, in which the Americans were upbraided for swapping the type of ball they were playing, depending on the wind direction, which was illegal. In one of the best golfing put-downs I can recall, Seve said: “We don’t say you were cheating, Paul. Cheating and breaking the rules are two different things.” From being 3 down at that point, after nine holes, the Spaniards won five of the next eight to win by 2&1, although Europe ultimately lost the match.
Reflecting on that incident, Olazábal notes that one of the ways in which golf has changed means that the Americans would nowadays not even have to contemplate such a strategy. “The balls today can do everything. They can bore through the wind and with the same ball you can impart as much spin as you want. The technology is incredible.”
In an age when we are forever complaining about a round of golf taking…well, taking an age, he is quite an advocate of something that Seve once proposed: players only being permitted to carry 10 clubs, rather than 14, for a competitive round. The 14-club limit was introduced just before the Second World War (of course, that wasn’t a consequence of the rule, which was introduced because some caddies were being told to lug around 30 clubs or more) so it’s not as if it’s an integral part of the game’s history. And when Phil Mickelson can carry around five types of wedges, or win the Masters using one driver to fade the ball and another to draw it, perhaps 14 is too generous a number.
“It would certainly make the game more interesting”, says Olazábal, who turned 50 earlier this month. “If you had say a 6-iron distance, you’d have to decide whether to put something on a 5-iron or take it off a 7-iron, perhaps by choosing to play either a draw or a fade. And actually, I think it would speed up play. There would be that sort of decision-making to be done but then you wouldn’t have as many clubs to select from.” Sounds sensible to me.
To finish, a Tiger Woods anecdote, from the USPGA Championship in August 1997. Woods had won the Masters, his first major, by a scarcely believable 12 shots in the April. Not surprisingly, people were astonished to find he was talking with Butch Harmon, the eminent coach, about changing his swing. One practice day at Winged Foot, Olazábal was on the first tee, waiting to play with Eduardo Romero, from Argentina, and Carlos Franco, from Paraguay. They didn’t have a fourth until Woods turned up and asked to join them. Just before they teed off, Butch happened to be walking past. “Hey, Tiger!” he called out. “What are you working on now? Practising your Spanish?”
To be honest, I could really do with working on mine…not to mention my golf!
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen