Interview: José María Olazábal

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The beauty about Augusta is that for the same shot, there are all kinds of possibilities. You can hit flop shots or you can use the slopes. A detail that not many people know is that around the greens the grass grows into you, not away from you, which makes executing delicate chips even more difficult. When I was at my peak, the more difficult the course, the better. I liked courses with small, firm greens, because that would place a greater emphasis on short-game shots.

Though Augusta looks open, position is key. If you get out of position around the greens, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you have no chance. It’s a very tough course for rookies. You need to know how to use the contours, and also that with certain pin positions, you don’t even look at the flag. Modern players aren’t used to doing that. Tell a young guy with a wedge in his hands that he needs to aim eight yards right of the hole and he’ll look at you like you’re crazy. But at Augusta, there are pins you just don’t take on.

I had a poor first round the year I won my first Masters, in 1994. I always struggled on the front nine; you don’t have as many birdie chances, and the greens are more undulating than they are on the back. But that year, I managed to keep my composure and get myself into contention as we came to the back nine on Sunday. When we reached the par-5 15th, I was tied for the lead with Tom Lehman, and what happened on that hole turned out to be the key moment of the tournament. We both hit good drives and were able to go for the green in two. I was first to hit and was between a 4 and 5-iron. The greens were very firm that week; I didn’t want to go long, because that chip back down the slope towards the water is scary. So I went with a 5-iron, knowing I had to hit it as hard as I could. As it was in the air, I thought it was going to be plenty of club, but the ball just barely made it onto the front edge and somehow it stopped there. It must have been inches from rolling back into the water.

Tom hit a fantastic second shot, one of his best all day. He was such a steady player, always hit the same shot, a tiny little draw. He hit it to seven feet. I made my long putt from about 30 feet for eagle, and he hit a lovely putt that looked great all the way, but just caught the right edge and lipped out. I could see him close his eyes – he must have been thinking, ‘how the hell did that not drop?’ It’s tough for a player to accept that.

We got to 18 and I had the cushion of a two-stroke lead. I remember in 1991, I was in the second-last group, with Tom Watson and Ian Woosnam behind us. The three of us were all tied when I got to the last. I hit a driver down 18, a lovely shot that I thought was going to be perfect, but the ball just pitched a fraction left and caught the fairway bunker. I made bogey and Woosie won with a par. The following week I was talking to Seve, and he asked me: ‘why did you hit driver there?’ My feeling was that both those guys were playing great and

I didn’t think either would make a bogey there, so I was going for birdie. And he told me, ‘next time, play safe short of the bunker, make your four and force them to make birdie’. And so when I got to 18 this time around, I had that firmly in my mind, even though I had a two-shot lead. I didn’t even think about the driver. I just hit a 1-iron up there, 7-iron onto the green and made my par to win.

When you dream about winning a Major, you imagine it’s going to be a moment of total ecstasy. After I won, there was a lot of things to do after the round. You have to do your press stuff, and the ceremony, and in those days you had to stay for dinner with the club members. I didn’t have time to gather my thoughts until I left the club that evening and drove back to the house. I remember parking up, getting out of the car and sitting on the bonnet thinking ‘I just won the Masters’. It was a very strange feeling. Not emptiness, but I didn’t feel the joy that you would expect. I wasn’t jumping up and down with excitement. The main emotion was relief. 

In ’99 it was different. I felt that special moment I expected to have the first time round. After winning in ’94, I had serious injury problems in ’95 and ’96 where I couldn’t play golf. In ’99, I was so much more conscious of everything around me. I was playing golf with total peace of mind, loving every step of it and very aware of the crowds and the roars out on the course.

Playing in the final group that year with Greg [Norman] was special. Obviously Greg was desperate to win, but I never sensed he was uptight. I’ll never forget what happened on the par-5 13th. I had missed my tee shot and was forced to lay up, while Greg hit two beautiful shots to about 25 feet from the hole. I managed to pitch just inside his ball, then he rolled in his eagle putt – it was the loudest roar I have ever heard at Augusta. But I followed that by holing my own putt, and that was really a magic moment.

I loved Augusta National from the moment I first set foot on it. The magic of the place obviously is huge. But the set-up of the course in the 1990s suited my game. It was not very demanding off the tee. Getting the right angle for your approach was helpful, but there was no rough and the landing areas were quite open. The main demands were iron play and short game, and those were my two main strengths. Maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable on that course from the start, especially chipping around the greens, using the bump and runs. The bunkers were immaculate. If you had a good touch, you could stop the ball anywhere. I don’t think anyone feels, ‘yes, I’m going to win this tournament’, but I immediately knew it was one that played to my strengths.

Augusta is a very different beast to the one we played in the ’90s. The main challenge of Augusta was that the greens were extremely fast. That was always the main defence of the course. But given the advances in golf technology, the move to titanium drivers and the improvements made with the ball, particularly around the turn of the new Millennium, I think the club were right to make drastic changes. I understand the lengthening, but they’ve narrowed a lot of the holes and made it much more of a test off the tee. Maybe there were a few years there where it became too difficult, but in recent years they have found the right balance.

José María spoke exclusively at the opening of the new Velaa Golf Academy by Olazábal on Velaa Private Island in the Maldives www.velaaprivateisland.com

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