Europe may have won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups but, for Jose Maria Olazabal, retaining the trophy at Gleneagles this September will not just be a question of the Europeans turning up.

“It’s not going to be a shoo-in at all,” says the man who, as captain two years ago in Medinah, engineered the greatest comeback in the Ryder Cup’s 85-year history. Then Europe, 10-4 behind at one stage on the Saturday, retained the cup by a point come Sunday.

“I believe it will be similar at Gleneagles,” Olazabal tells me. “The American pride has been hurt and I’m sure they will do all they can to win that trophy back. Paul [McGinley, this year’s captain] knows he has his hands full and the players will have to play extraordinarily well to keep the trophy.”

Olazabal has no doubts the one player crucial to maintaining Europe’s dominance will be Rory McIlroy.

“He is a team player,” says Olazabal. “One of the first quotes Rory gave when he came on the Tour was that the Ryder Cup was an exhibition. But that was before he played in it. After he had been a player, he realised how special it is. As captain, I had no problem whatever with him. I told him I might rest him and he had no objections to that.”

But, while the Northern Ireland golfer may be willing, can he deliver given the 2013 he had? Starting the season ranked No1 and with the world at his feet, he finished at No6 and had to wait until his 24th tournament, the Australian Open last month, for his only victory.

The double Major winner birdied the final hole to pip Masters champion Adam Scott to the title in Sydney and Olazabal sees that triumph as a sign McIlroy is finding his old form.

“It’s true the Australian victory was not as important as winning the US PGA by eight [in 2012]. But winning on the 72nd hole was huge in the sense that Rory had been struggling with his game for the whole year and you always want to win a tournament. That is the best proof that your game is coming back. That’s all he needs to build his confidence. He has been playing much better over the last few months.”

McIlroy has said he wants to make up for 2013 by winning two Majors this season. “I’m pretty sure he will do really well this year,” says Olazabal.

Such is the Spaniard’s confidence in McIlroy he even dismisses the fact the player confessed he needed counselling after failing to make the cut at last year’s Open at Muirfield. “We all need that in one way or another,” says the 47-year-old. “I had counselling.”

‘Winning on the 72nd hole was huge for Rory as he had been struggling with his game for the whole year ’ – Jose Maria OlazabalHowever, Olazabal’s counsellor was Seve Ballesteros. “He wasn’t a professional counsellor but the advice that he gave me was very useful.”

As Olazabal prepared to putt the length of the Concorde as the European team flew to the US for the 1999 Ryder Cup, Ballesteros whispered ,“Make sure the ball stays in the aisle.” Despite following instructions, Olazabal missed the hole.

The late five-times Major champion did offer Olazabal more serious advice, telling him: “It is part of the game to feel nervous. All you have to do is try your best and not pay any attention to what others say or what you read. Just try to keep your peace of mind when you are playing the game and enjoy it as much as you can, regardless of failure.”

It is just the sort of attitude Olazabal feels has benefited US Open champion Justin Rose. “As an amateur, he did extraordinarily well at the Open and then he had a tough time once he turned professional. But I think losing his father and going through that spell in his career made him stronger mentally. Right now he has become one of the most solid players on Tour. That’s what you need in the Ryder Cup. And what is important is that he’s improved his short game.”

Olazabal would like to see a similar improvement in Luke Donald’s short game. “When he was No 1 in the world [in 2011], he was very consistent from tee to green. Something like 84 per cent of the time he had only two shots. That is hard to beat. The only problem last year was his short game was not as good as it was in the past. But sooner or later Luke will be knocking on the door.

“And he is part of the great group of people we have in Europe. Lee [Westwood] still has a couple of Ryder Cups in him. We saw what Nicolas Colsaerts did at Medinah. Paul Casey was a little unlucky in 2012 that he got injured in the qualifying process. He’s a great match player and I’m pretty sure, with the form he is in, he will be in the mix at Gleneagles.”

What Olazabal cannot predict is whether Tiger Woods will be in the mix. The 14-times Major champion has won just 14 out of a possible 29 points in six Ryder Cups. Does that mean Woods is too selfish to perform in a team event?

“I don’t think the word is selfish. I think he is an individual-minded guy. I’ve played with Tiger many times, I know how good he is, how strong mentally. But we are all scratching our heads as to why he doesn’t perform to his standards at the Ryder Cup. Tiger will break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Majors. I have always believed that. His dominance is not as strong as it was. Players might not be as afraid of him as they were 12 to 15 years ago but I’m telling you, he will win more Majors.”

While Olazabal is sure the old Tiger will return, he had no thoughts himself of returning as captain at Gleneagles. The Americans may have gone back to Tom Watson but Olazabal denies he wanted to be reappointed. “Once as captain is enough.”

Instead, he lavishes praise on McGinley. “He’s been there, done it as a player and as vice-captain a couple of times [including under Olazabal]. He knows what to do. You don’t need to be a winner of 10 Majors to be a great leader. A great leader is the one who finds a way to inspire others to achieve a common goal.”

And, while Olazabal refuses to give advice, McGinley might ponder on how the Spaniard reacted at Medinah when Europe were trailing America.

When I ask Olazabal if he copied Sir Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer treatment, he says: “That’s not my style. I told the players I was not very happy with the whole situation. I knew they could do better and you have to be ready from the moment you stand on that first tee. What else do you say when you are behind but you know you have a great team?”


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