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Hole19 Interview: José Maria Olazábal on Golf, Seve & Navarino Hills

When we talk about golfing greats, José Marίa Olazábal, is up with the very best the game has ever seen.  

Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing the two-time Masters champion and he gave us some fascinating insights into his illustrious golfing career, as well as the lowdown on his eagerly-anticipated 36-hole Navarino Hills golf development.

How much fun did you have designing Navarino Hills?

Yeah, I really did have a lot of fun designing the Navarino golf courses. When I first set foot on the property, I was really impressed with the potential of the land, in the sense that you had two different areas, one down the valley where you see the mountains behind and everything is green, and the other area very close to a cliff that actually faces Costa Navarino Bay.

I was overwhelmed with the potential of the piece of land, so I really tried to lift those elements while designing the golf courses.

How much did the pandemic affect the construction of the golf course?

Well, the pandemic did affect the timing in constructing the golf courses in that you had to be aware of the situation. And it was tough times for everyone, not just for us, but for everyone around the world.

It was a little handicap in the sense that the timings couldn't be fulfilled. We would have loved to finish a little bit sooner so we could have seeded the golf course earlier, but because of the pandemic, and the delay on the works, that was the only part that was really affected.

This being the 20th course you have designed, has it become easier over time?

It's a little bit easier in that you have experience from previous golf courses, but you have to adapt to the new situation. Obviously, the landscape is not the same, the turf is not always the same and sometimes you have difficulties because of the quality of the land that you're working on.

For instance here in Costa Navarino, we had a lot of stones in the land and we had to cope with it and that made it a little bit more difficult to create the path. Overall, the more you experience, the easier it is facing those challenges, but at the end of the day it's crucial to adapt yourself to a new situation.

What do you consider when designing a course?

First of all, when you design a golf course you have to be aware of your surroundings. What is local by instance, vegetations, the features of the land that you're working on, the trees, creeks, water, you have to get all those elements and you have to be conscious and use them in your design.

And I think that is important. That's what I try to do anyway. I look at those features of the property and try to bring them into play and into the design.

What’s unique about Navarino Hills?

I think what is unique about Navarino Hills is the landscape, to be honest. You have completely different sceneries throughout that landscape. You have the mountains, the greenery, the forest, the bushes on one side, and when you play the holes up by the hill, you have a perfect view of Costa Navarino Bay.

Do you already have a favorite hole across the two courses at Navarino Hills?

There's a bunch of holes that are really breathtaking, to be honest. It is down to the scenery as much as it is down to the holes themselves.

On the tee box of holes 12 and 16 of the Olympic course, the scenery of Navarino Bay is just breathtaking. You really have to be there to realise it. I think anybody that plays the golf course is going to agree with me. Obviously, there are more holes that are intimidating, that are challenging, but those two holes are the ones that really stand out.

What would be the standout signature hole?

Scenery wise as I said, on the Olympic course holes 12 and 16 - any of the two because they're two par-3s playing in opposite directions and both have a wonderful view of the bay.

Honestly though, there is a bunch of wonderful holes on both golf courses.

What courses/holes inspired you during the design of the two courses at Navarino Hills?

Obviously when you play as a professional, you play different golf courses and you try to feed in the features that you think are important on a design. And I tried to learn as much as I could from all the golf courses that I played.

That's what I try to implement also on my designs: run offs around the greens, interesting risk and reward shot, and the ability to see as much as possible when you are standing on the tee.

In Costa Navarino you also have to adapt to the terrain, for instance on the Hills Course, you have a lot of changes in elevation to adapt to. On the Olympic, I think it is more of a challenging course but you can see pretty much everything from the tee.

What are the courses at Navarino Hills like for the average and pro golfer?

The Olympic Course will be the more demanding of the two courses, but it starts with a par five so things are easy initially and then all of a sudden you have a good solid par-3 on the second hole and a tricky par-4 on the third.

The Hills Course is a different challenge in the sense that the golf course is designed more for the average golfer. It has wider fairways, not as many bunkers around the green - there's even a couple of holes that you have no bunkers on them at all. They are, of course, still challenging. The greens are elevated and if you miss them, you can hit a sand-wedge up in the air or maybe even bump and run it.

I think both average and pro golfers alike will find a lot of great holes on both golf courses.

If we take hole number 1 on the Olympic Course, how would you recommend average golfers play it?

When I design a course I try to make the first hole an easier start. It's either going to be a par-4 that's not too long, or a par-5 - in this case it's a par-5. You have a bunker on the right that you have to avoid which is close to the landing area from the tee, but if you hit a good solid drive it's a reachable par-5.

The green is well protected with a couple of bunkers at the front, and you have three different levels on the green. The left hand side is hidden, but you can still attack the flag on the left by hitting a good shot to the middle of the green because it feeds towards that area.

For the average golfer, it's probably a three-shotter and you'll have to avoid a bunker on the right and then position your second shot towards the right corner of the fairway to give a better angle to attack the green. Depending on the player, this might leave a little sand-wedge, but it's still a demanding shot.

Who was the best player you have ever seen playing a game past or present?

Obviously, in my case, I have to say Seve. When he was at his peak, I think he was one of the best golfers that I ever saw. There is a bunch of great players that I played with, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, and so on, but the creativity Seve had, and the way he could escape from difficult places, he was second to none.

I learned so much from him, especially when you were in bad places. He had such an imagination that he could see gaps that a normal player, myself for instance, wouldn't even think about. I learned so much from him and I think his determination, his demeanour on the golf course, his attitude, his refusal to ever give up - I really have to take my hat off to him.

If you were looking a matchplay partner to play Navarino Hills, who would be your pick between Seve, Miguel Angél Jimenez, Sergio Garcia or Jon Rahm?

I think Seve was unique, especially for matchplay. But having said that, within the younger generation, Jon Rahm is fantastic. He's a solid player, his short game is good, and if you have to play matchplay, I think he would be a great asset.

He's very aggressive and, on top of that, I think he has matured a lot in the last two or three years. Before he had huge potential but sometimes he could lose his temper on the golf course. I think with time he has improved in that area so he would be a great matchplay partner.

What would be the proudest moment in your golfing career?

When you look at the career of any player, I think it is defined mainly by major performances so I'm extremely proud of winning two Masters.

I do also have wonderful memories of the Ryder Cup, not just of the tournament itself, but also the relationships and the friendships that you create during that week - they will last a lifetime.

It's a very unique event in which all players open themselves up and express themselves. So I would say it's those two elements that I cherish most in my career as a professional.

While we're on the subject of the Ryder Cup, what do you think of Europe’s chances in Rome?

I have to say that the US team is very strong and they have a generation of players that are young. They know each other and they have a bond between them. We're going to have to raise our level in order to have a chance of beating them in 2023.

I'm very conscious that the US team is going to be very strong for the next few Ryder Cups, so we're going to have to really raise our game in each of those events if we want to compete.

What an absolute privilege it was to interview such a true legend of our game. Now that we all know more about the magnificent Navarino Hills, we know you'll be just as excited as we are to experience all that the two courses have to offer. In the meantime, you can get more info on the resort here.


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