Few who clustered about the notice board of the draw for the 107th Amateur Championship at Porthcawl paid much attention to the name of Alejandro Larrazabal.
Although the young Spaniard was the second best qualifier his record was not outstanding. A student at the little known Coastal Carolina University, he ranked a lowly 398th in the US Collegiate order of merit. His coming to the Amateur was not preceded with the fanfare that had brought El Nino Garcia to these shores and he had not posted his intent in the same way that Olazabal had done by winning the British Boys and Youths titles before taking on the Amateur.
Indeed, even the few who watched him qualify would have reckoned him unlikely to earn a place beyond the third round. He was, after all, in the bottom half of the draw where the vagaries of chance had drawn the handful of likely winners.
But Larrazabal went through eight rounds of matchplay golf and triumphed, although no-one made it easy for him not least of all himself. Larrazabal left few parts of the course unvisited, investigating lies in places unfamiliar to the green-keeping staff and entirely unknown to the club membership. This lad has the handsome good looks of the young Ballesteros as well as his swashbuckling spirit off the tee. Indeed, but for his eagle-eyed bag-carrying brother he would have run out of balls before the matchplay stage.
Eight rounds of matchplay golf on the links lands of Porthcawl are hard work. Tested to the limit by the best 228 amateur players from Europe and beyond, it becomes an ordeal. In the wind and squally showers off the Bristol Channel, physical and mental demands are made of the player that no well-heeled pro would countenance.
The pros, however, may have an insight into the Amateur not generally shared. No Amateur winner has ever gone on to take an Open title since Bobby Jones in 1930; and no one since Lawson Little, winner in 1934 and 35, has gone on to win the US Open. Bob May, runner-up to Gary Wolstenholme in 91 and Colin Montgomerie, who lost to Olazabal in 84 have both lost Open play-offs and Scott Hoch, whom Jay Sigal beat in 79 was also beaten by Nick Faldo in a play-off for the Masters. Does winning the Amateur have something of the kiss of death about it? Olazabal stands out as an Amateur Champion who went on to take a Major but it is doubtful if Larrazabal is quite in the Ollie class.
There is nothing of the precocious Spaniard about Martin Sell, whom Larrazabal had to overcome on the last green of the 36-hole final. Sell is the quintessential English Amateur who did not even take up the game until he was 16 and didnt make scratch before he was 21. Far from national representation he has not even threatened his county title in Wiltshire.
If Larrazabal was an unlikely finalist at the start of the week, Sell was definitely a no-hoper. He did, however, find himself in the kindly upper half of the draw where he reached for the stars and started punching way above his weight. Graham Gordon should have been his undoing in the semi-final but despite being out-driven routinely by 50 yards, a touch of Gordon indifference and Sell inspiration resulted in the upset of the event. While the big names were at each others golfing throats in the lower half of the draw, Sell was putting himself through seven rounds into the final.
Larrazabal had the most demanding two rounds of his life on Friday. In his quarter final round in the morning he defeated the fancied Zane Scotland when the latter needed only to chip and two putt for the match. In the afternoon semi-final he beat Jamie Elson, another likely winner who missed a 15-inch gimme putt for the match.
Larrazabal must have viewed Sell as a respite on Saturday morning. But Sell battled hard and despite losing the first hole to par and even being three down twice in the match, the Englishman found himself level on the 34th tee.
Sell missed the fairway while Larrazabal uncharacteristically found it.
That was enough for him to secure the hole and his birdie on the last was enough for him to secure the match. He finds his name on the Amateur Championship trophy with a free passage into the Open at Muirfield as well as a week in Georgia with a place in next years Masters field.
With the waywardness and powers of recovery of a Ballesteros, the controlled long iron play of an Olazabal and the vigorous enthusiasm of a Garcia, Larrazabal will doubtless be hailed as the Spanish wonder heir apparent.
This conclusion would be premature. There is something of the Don Quixote about him still and I suspect that the lad will be some time tilting at windmills.
|| 13 - JUNE 2002