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Sunday, January 16, 2011
Updated: January 18, 7:32 AM ET
Olazabal adds title of Ryder Cup captain

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

Finding a pebble in the vast Abu Dhabi desert might be easier than locating an individual who has a bad thing to say about Jose Maria Olazabal, the newly named European Ryder Cup captain.

Jose Maria Olazabal
During the 2010 Ryder Cup, Jose Maria Olazabal was called into service by captain Colin Montgomerie to help out the European squad.

The secret has been out for weeks, ever since the two-time Masters winner let it be known that he would not let his health issues stand in the way of leading a European team with which his name has become synonymous.

The official announcement came Tuesday in the Middle East, where the first truly big tournament of the year -- on either the European Tour or PGA Tour -- will take place in Abu Dhabi.

Many of the players Olazabal can expect to captain next year at Medinah outside of Chicago against a U.S. team led by Davis Love (that announcement is coming Thursday) are playing in the Abu Dhabi Championship, including Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell, hero for the Europeans in October at Celtic Manor.

And you can be sure they are ready to march to the first tee and play for Olazabal right now, even though the matches are more than 18 months away.

That is because of the reputation Olazabal, 44, has in the game, his record, and certainly his play in the Ryder Cup.

Seven times he was a member of the European team, and twice served as vice captain, including at Celtic Manor, where captain Colin Montgomerie pressed him into duty at the last minute after the weather issues meant he wanted another set of eyeballs on the proceedings.

"What he brought to the Ryder Cup over the years with Seve Ballesteros was remarkable -- they have the best record together in history," Montgomerie said.

Yes, Olazabal had an impressive record, going 18-8-5 in his seven Cups. But the numbers he put up with fellow Spaniard Ballesteros were incredible. The duo was paired 15 times from 1987 -- the first European victory on American soil -- through 1993, and went 11-2-2.

But Olazabal's appointment certainly goes beyond his playing record.

In addition to his experience, there is the way in which he handled the aftermath of the ugly scene in 1999 at The Country Club. Olazabal stood in shocked silence as the American team celebrated a lengthy birdie putt on the 17th hole by Justin Leonard which would clinch the Ryder Cup for the United States.

The problem was Olazabal still had a putt of his own to tie the hole. How many judge that scene likely has to do with which side of the Atlantic on which one resides.

Afterward, as the venom seeped out and the war of words escalated, Olazabal -- in his evenhanded way -- expressed his disappointment over the American reaction, but did nothing to make the tension worse. And as is often forgotten, he fought back to win the 18th hole, salvaging a meaningless half point in his match that was nonetheless very meaningful to him.

"Every player you are talking to sees him as an inspirational figure," said George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour.

It was earlier in 1999 when Olazabal captured his second green jacket at the Masters, denying Greg Norman during a spirited final day that saw the Shark briefly take the lead with an eagle at the 13th hole at Augusta National, only to have Ollie steal his thunder by rolling in a birdie putt on top of him to keep it tied.

Norman fell out of the lead on the next hole, and Love briefly got into the picture when he holed a miraculous birdie chip on the 16th hole.

In the end, it was Olazabal with the hardware, having overcome career-threatening arthritis to notch an unlikely second major title.

"He's got a good heart. He means well. He's great for the game of golf, and he's a great competitor," Norman said that day.

In truth, Olazabal likely would have had the captaincy in 2010 if he wanted it. The European Tour's Ryder Cup committee was said to be leaning toward Olazabal. But he wavered, perhaps wanting to try to make the team for the eighth time, but also again slowed by the rheumatoid arthritis which has limited his playing schedule.

With that, the committee went with Montgomerie, another highly decorated European Tour player, who presided over a 14 ½-to-13 ½ victory that came down to the last match.

Olazabal was again somewhat reluctant to accept the 2012 captaincy because lingering health issues -- which limited his schedule in 2010 -- could keep him from playing alongside potential team members, as the European Tour brass expects of its captain.

But he apparently feels better about his health. And let's face it, he can figure it out whether he is playing or not.

Montgomerie endorsed Olazabal while holding up the trophy in Wales, and has said nothing but positive things ever since.

And it is difficult to see anyone else objecting.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.