Clean game is their goal

Clean game is their goal

Golf: Jose Maria Olazabal and Davis Love III have moved on, putting behind the bitter episodes of the past

The Ryder Cup, golf’s biggest magnifying glass, has long exposed the cracks between its participants, the captains in particular. They, more than their players, are the real faces of this event, holing none of the putts but bearing the brunt of the attention and promotional burden in the two-year build-up to each Cup.

The enforced togetherness is not always a recipe for bonhomie. Tom Kite and Seve Ballesteros in 1997 spring to mind, as do Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo in 2008. Even if the words are diplomatic, the body language is a better clue. But there has been no hint of strain in Davis Love III’s and Jose Maria Olazabal’s give-and-take last week — from the warm greeting they shared on Monday, when Olazabal arrived with the Cup in hand, to the compliments they exchanged and tone they set on Thursday during the opening ceremony.

“Nobody should confuse these matches with any sort of battle except an athletic one,” Love said. “We start these matches on a note of friendship, and we will end them the same way. In this world we need all the friends we can get.”

Both have seen the Ryder Cup turn ugly. They were competitors in 1999 when the US roared back on the final day to win in Brookline, Massachusetts, as a rowdy crowd heckled some of the Europeans and the US team trampled over Olazabal’s putting line on the 17th green after Justin Leonard sank a monster putt with Olazabal still waiting.
“I don’t think these things should happen on a golf course anywhere,” Olazabal said later that day. “You show respect for your opponent.”

Though Love and many of his team-mates apologised, some of them believed, at least initially, that the Europeans had protested too much. “We didn’t cry when we lost two years in a row,” Love said in 1999. But the Cup has taken a turn for the civil since then. Winning, though desirable, does not seem quite such a necessity. But the pressure remains.

Olazabal has a clear edge over Love in pressure management as a Ryder Cup player. Love did seal the Americans’ victory in his first Cup, in 1993, by defeating Constantino Rocca in singles on the final day. But his overall record in the Cup is a losing one: 9-12, with five halves.

Olazabal is 18-8-5, with the sizzle in that statistic coming largely from his remarkable partnership with his Spanish elder Ballesteros. Olazabal and Ballesteros were 11-2-2 as a pairing and played Kite and Love in three matches in 1993, winning two.

“We had Kite and Seve bashing against each other, and we were on the side trying to be friendly,” Love said. “I think we’ve always had that respect for each other. We’ve had great mentors, and we were very lucky in the game with our fathers. We have a lot of connections, and I was very pleased when I found out that we were going to be captains.”

There are parallels. Both turned professional in 1985. Both have stayed close to their roots, Love remaining based in coastal Georgia and Olazabal in the Spanish Basque country. Though Love was more a child of privilege, they both grew up with special access to the game.

Love’s father, Davis Love Jr., was a touring professional who played in all four of the majors and later became a prominent teaching professional. Olazabal’s father, Gaspar, did not play golf seriously, but he was a greenskeeper at the Real Golf Club de San Sebastian. Olazabal was taking putts by age 2 and soon using a cut-down club and taking full swings at balls that his father found on the course.

Olazabal and Love were precocious talents, but rougher times were ahead. Love’s father died in 1988 at age 53 in a small-plane crash. Olazabal, after winning his first Masters in 1994, was soon crawling across the floor to get from room to room, his golfing future in jeopardy because of rheumatoid arthritis.

Olazabal worked his way back and won the Masters in 1999, finishing two shots ahead of Love. The next year, after the traditional Champions Dinner at Augusta National in which the reigning champion plans the menu, Olazabal shipped the wine bottles that remained to Love.

“It’s the little things,” Love said. “He felt I should get something out of it.”  The consensus on the tour is that Love, now 48, has not extracted the maximum from his silken swing, that his one major victory at the 1997 PGA Championship and his 19 other tour victories do not quite add up to the sum of his prodigious abilities. Perhaps Love’s internal flame dimmed after his father’s death. Perhaps it came down to desire, a need for balance.

“I wanted to win, but maybe not as bad as some,” Love told Golf Digest this year. “I always looked at someone like Nick Price, who among all the dominant players was the nicest guy out there, as who I wanted to be like. And friends like Joey Sindelar and Scott Simpson and Larry Mize. They put their family first, friends second, golf game after that. Golf was their job. And that’s the way I always looked at it.”

He does not appear to be approaching the Ryder Cup captaincy in quite the same transactional manner. Love has clearly done his homework and then some, quoting previous captains liberally as if he has picked their brains, read their books or, in some cases, simply answered their latest phone call.

“When the iPhone says ‘Paul Azinger,’ I have to make a decision,” Love said this week. “Do I have 30, 45 minutes? Or do I hit the ignore button? And sometimes I hit ignore, and sometimes I answered it.”

Olazabal’s principal mentor is no longer available to talk strategy. Ballesteros, one of the Ryder Cup’s defining talents, died last year of a brain tumor. He was a driving, demanding force as a team-mate and then as a captain in 1997. He was also a pivotal factor in Olazabal’s career, inviting him to play in a charity match when Olazabal was just 15.

“Something really special happened that day,” Olazabal said. It continued for 30 years, and when Olazabal was named captain of this Ryder Cup team, the first person he called was Ballesteros, whom he wanted as an assistant captain in Medinah.

It did not happen, but Olazabal has made sure that Ballesteros is a presence, putting his silhouette on the European team’s golf bags. The subject remains emotionally raw, and during Thursday’s opening ceremony Olazabal wiped away tears when Ballesteros’ memory was first invoked.

“He was a special man,” Olazabal said later in his own speech. “More than anything, I learned from him what true passion is all about. Seve, we miss you.”

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