Jose Maria Olazabal exhibited excellence wherever he played – seven wins as an amateur, 21 European Tour wins, two Japan Golf Tour victories and six PGA TOUR wins, including two Masters Tournaments. And that doesn’t include his stellar Ryder Cup record of 18 wins, five halfs and eight losses.
Olazabal was born in Fuenterrabia, Spain surrounded by golf the day after his home course opened. It seemed that he was just destined to play golf. At Real Golf Club de San Sebastian, Olazabal’s father was the greenskeeper. To teach his young son the game, his father cut down a three iron and took him out on the course late in the day. Spending much of his adolescent life developing his game on the golf course, he exhibited his talent by winning The Amateur Championship at the ripe old age of 18, the only winner of The Amateur Championship to later win a professional major since World War II.
"All men die, but not all men live."
Olazabal’s seven wins as an amateur propelled him onto the European Tour. In his rookie season of 1986, Olazabal finished second in the Order of Merit by winning two events (in both events he shot in the 60s in all four rounds). He continued his success on the European Tour by going on to win 19 more times.
Olazabal put an exclamation point on his already impressive resume by winning his first major in 1994 at Augusta National. This victory was due, in large part, to his timely 30-foot eagle putt on the par-five 15th hole in the final round, opening up a two-stroke lead over Tom Lehman, which he maintained for the win. After winning, Olazabal said, “I’m very pleased, what can I say. It’s like a dream come true. I’ve been working hard for this the last two years, and I couldn’t be a happier man. This is the biggest thing that has happened in my career, it is difficult to put into words just what it means.” Before this win, Olazabal was only labeled as a potential great, but this triumph showed everyone his major material.
In 1995 and 1996 Olazabal was crippled by intense pain in his feet that turned out to stem from problems in his back. He was forced to miss the 1996 season and thought that he would not be able to play again at a high level. But in 1999, Olazabal once again exhibited his superior talent and won his second major at Augusta. That year he completed what was called “one of the greatest triumphs over adversity” and edged Davis Love III and Greg Norman, the favorite, by making birdie on three holes on the back nine after bogeying the first three on the front.
Olazabal teamed with Seve Ballesteros to form the ‘Spanish Armada’, the most successful Ryder Cup duo in history going 11-2-2 over 15 matches.
But perhaps his major claim to fame is his truly spectacular performances in the biennial Ryder Cup Matches. Olazabal played on seven European Ryder Cup teams – in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1997, 1999, and 2006. In his first Cup appearance, just 21 years old, Olazabal was paired with fellow Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, who became his great friend and mentor. Playing with Ballesteros on the Ryder Cup team in 1987, 1989, 1991, and 1993, they teamed-up in 15 matches, in which their record was an astounding 11 wins, two losses, and two halves, the best two-man team performances in Ryder Cup history.
When Ballesteros retired from Ryder Cup play, Olazabal later formed a successful partnership with Sergio Garcia, another fellow Spainard, that extended his performance record to 18-8- 5. In seven Ryder Cup appearances, Olazabal has helped the European Team win in 1987, 1997, and 2006.