Why this 58-year-old’s Masters round was the best of the day

Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain acknowledges the patrons after making a par on the first hole during the third round of the 2024 Masters Tournament

Jose Maria Olazabal in the third round of the Masters.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — José María Olazábal — the great Spanish golfer who plays this unlikely and rugged cross-country game with immeasurable Scottish spirit — was surprised to make the 36-hole cut Friday night. But he did, on the number, at six over par. Which meant he was one of 60 golfers who got to play the Augusta National Golf Club course on Saturday, in the third round of this 88th Masters. Olazabal shot 75. No round was better.

Yes, a bunch of players went lower. But the suggestion here is to look at Olazábal’s score through a wider lens.

He’s 58. The first hole on Saturday, through swirling winds, was a driver and a wood for him. The last hole was, too. He could reach the four par-5s — in three. He seldom plays 72-hole tournaments. And still he managed to go around in three over.

He welled-up afterward, talking about what golf means to him. That’s really why it was the best round of the day: the man shot 75, and it meant everything to him. All there was to get out of that round, Ollie got.

There is nobody like Olazábal in professional golf. Shivas Irons, the celebrated Scottish teaching pro, comes close, but he lives in a novella, “Golf in the Kingdom.” Here’s Shivas: “Ye’ll come away from the links with a new hold on life, that is certain if ye play the game with all your heart.” Here’s Olazábal: “All men die but not all men live.”

Olazábal, as team captain, said that to his players after Europe won the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. The golfers and their spirit, for golf and for competition, made Ollie feel alive on that Sunday. That was his point. Golf played the right way makes José María Olazábal feel alive.

He won the Masters twice, in 1994 and ’99. His friend and countryman Seve Ballesteros won it two times as well. Olazábal was a mentor to Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia, both winners at Augusta, and an Augusta National mentor to Tiger Woods. Their relationship began in 1995, when Woods made his first trip to Augusta.

In 2019, on Masters Wednesday, Woods was watching Olazábal play exquisite pitch shots near the driving range.

“I don’t think I have that shot, Ollie,” Tiger said to Ollie.

“Don’t try to bullshit me, Tiger — I know who you are. You’ve got every kind of shot.”

The two prodigies talked for 20 minutes about how pitching the ball at Augusta National is unlike pitching the ball on any other course. Five days later, Woods won his fifth green jacket.

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There’s been an unspoken closeness between the two men for 30 years, even though they see each other only once a year, at the Masters. Seve’s spirit, and his artistic golf, hovers over all of this. The Basque spirit hovers over all of this.

One of the great sights over the years at Augusta has been seeing Olazábal and Ballesteros, with their families and agents and friends, taking over the second-floor dining room in the Augusta National clubhouse. Red wine. Red steaks. Reddish cheeks. Long afternoons. Their beautiful mother tongue in the air as they slouched in clubhouse  chairs that could not contain them, nobody in a rush to go anywhere. Both men played golf on golf courses, not driving ranges. They drove it all over the map and lived to tell the tale.

American golf fans never really got their whole thing. A cultural divide. Our loss. I can’t name a golfer I admire more than Olazábal. I know Butch Harmon feels the same.

On Saturday, Olazábal went up and down the Augusta National hills with his familiar, fast-paced chest-forward walk. He was dressed, as per usual, with impeccable Continental style. (White Lacoste shirt, one crocodile; custom-made black trousers with little slits at the ankles.) He engaged appropriately with fans, tournament officials, his American playing partner (Luke List), his Italian caddie (Lorenzo Gagli, an Italian touring pro). Various others. His putting grip is conventional, and his putting stroke has no yip in it. He shot the same score as Bryson DeChambeau.

Olazábal has a close friend named Sam Reeves, a golfing lifer, 90 on his next birthday. Sam is still on the quest for improvement. When they compare their golf notes they actually are talking about their lives. They go deep or not at all. “It’s always a learning process,” Olazabal said Saturday afternoon.

When Tiger was a young man, he used to say, “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” Well, a young person would say that. Ollie and Sam, in their lives, are saying something else: No matter where you are today, you can be better tomorrow. “Golf is a journey,” Olazábal said on Saturday.

In 1996, he had a strange foot ailment that caused him to miss an entire year. He was at the height of his powers at the time. It never occurred to him to ask to use a cart in competition. He offered to return endorsement money to his sponsors. The current state of the men’s professional game, millionaires squabbling over more millions, leaves Olazábal cold.

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He has lived for decades in a modest house near a modest golf course in the Basque Country. He never married. His father was a greenkeeper and his father’s father was a greenkeeper. Golf has been at the core of his life all of his life. The great open-air cathedrals of his life are Augusta National, the Old Course in St. Andrews and the ordinary course on which he was raised, the course in San Sebastian. He may never break 76 at Augusta National again. On some level, he may know that. But he’ll age-out trying.

“I think I share a lot of his emotions,” Jon Rahm said Saturday, speaking of his Tuesday-night dinner companion, this year and, one hopes, for many Masters Week Tuesdays to come. “I don’t know if it’s Spanish players in general or not, but all the passion we have on the golf course is because we love it so much.”

Forty years ago, in 1984, Olazábal and Colin Montgomerie played in the final of the British Amateur. Ollie won. That got him to the 1985 Masters, his first. He played as amateur. He’s still, in spirit, an amateur. I asked him if, in the summer of ’84, he ever imagined having the life in golf he has had.

“Never,” he said. His eyes went moist. “Not in my wildest dreams.”

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.

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