AKRON, Ohio – Jose Maria Olazabal stepped to the 10th tee at Firestone Country Club with little fanfare Thursday as perhaps one hundred fans gathered to watch.
What transpired next was not a case of nerves, he said later, but more a reflection of the state of his swing.
A World Golf Hall of Famer making his first appearance in Akron since 2007, Olazabal pulled his drive into the rough on the adjoining ninth hole.
A 55-year-old Spaniard who was the first to post the South Course record of 61 in 1990, Olazabal showed he still has some magic in the hands that Champions Tour rival Jerry Kelly called “the best in the business.”
Olazabal split two massive oak trees, put his second shot on the green and saved par. On the par-5 16th hole dubbed “The Monster,” he calmly sank an 18-foot birdie.
As Steve Stricker raced to a four-shot lead in the first round of the $3 million Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, Olazabal proved he still knows his way around one of the most respected layouts on the PGA or Champions Tours. He posted a 70 that left him seven strokes off the lead.
“Obviously the golf course is playing much different than when we played here before,” Olazabal said. “The golf course is much longer. It was quite breezy today. Even though the greens were holding, I’m hitting much longer clubs into the greens than I used to in those days and that makes it obviously more difficult.”
Memories have been flooding back since Olazabal closed in on the Firestone ball that looms over the clubhouse entrance on Warner Road.
“It’s just a long, long, long time ago,” he said Tuesday, thinking back to his 61. “It’s a whole new situation. We get old, our physical abilities are not at the same level. You have to realize different times, different situation.
“But when I drove in this morning, I was getting close to the clubhouse, obviously you remember those days and it makes you feel good.”
Others have matched his feat since Olazabal, playing with persimmon woods and a balata ball, shot the historic 9-under par score in the first round of the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf.
Three other players — Tiger Woods (2000, 2013), Sergio Garcia (2014) and Hideki Matsuyama (2017) — posted 61s in the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational before the event moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 2019.
Olazabal said he didn’t realize the magnitude of his 61 until he finished a practice round the following year.
“It was lovely weather, just a little breeze, it was warm, perfect weather conditions,” he said. “So I play 18 holes and I went into the clubhouse and Sergio [Gomez] my manager was there. I sat down at the table and I look at him straight in the eyes and I said, ‘How on earth did I manage to shoot 61 on this golf course?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Kelly, who won his first major last year in the Bridgestone Senior Players with a 3-under total, imagined how on-point Olazabal must have been that day.
“You have to play kind of perfect golf to do that kind of thing,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is not a place where you just, ‘I didn’t have my ‘A’ game. You’ve got to have your game, all facets.”
Gomez, who passed away in 2020, told the Beacon Journal in a 2004 interview that he’d seen Olazabal in that kind of zone before.
“I’ve seen him the same, transformed, like walking on a cloud instead of walking on the ground a couple of times,” Gomez said then.
When those words from Gomez were relayed to Olazabal, he said, “It’s one of those weeks for whatever reason I felt relaxed. Not on the night from Saturday to Sunday, I was kind of nervous, I didn’t sleep all that well because I had a good cushion, I think it was seven shots or something like that and it was my tournament to lose.”
Closing with three rounds of 67, Olazabal finished 18 under and beat Lanny Wadkins by 12 shots, then the biggest margin of victory on the PGA Tour since 1975. It is now tied for the fifth-largest margin.
Olazabal has won six times on the PGA Tour, including the 1994 NEC World Series of Golf on Firestone’s North Course, along with 23 international victories. He’s still seeking his first triumph on the Champions Tour.
But Olazabal said winning wire-to-wire is always special. In 1990, he started birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie on Thursday; he birdied the first two holes the final three days.
“The pressure is there, the media attention is there and to overcome that situation, to be successful and to win, is different,” Olazabal said. “I’ve won a bunch of tournaments, but when you win wire to wire, you really take that tournament as special.”
Olazabal said the Firestone triumph helped give him the confidence to capture his two Masters in 1994 and 1999. So when he heard it would host a Champions Tour event, he was thrilled.
“Yes, obviously because of the memories, but this is as good of a golf course as you can play. It’s challenging, it’s difficult, demanding,” he said. “You have to play really, really good golf around here to put a good score on the card. It’s all those things combined that makes coming here and coming to play a major like this week special.”
Olazabal heard no comments about the 61 from the gallery on Thursday as he battled his driver, hitting only eight of 14 fairways. But some old-timers on Tuesday were glad to see him.
“This morning a couple guys that were working by the clubhouse said, ‘Hey, welcome back, I was here when you shot 61.’
“Yeah, it’s in the air. Yeah, it’s in the air.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.