One of Europe’s finest and most popular golfing stars is heading the way of Royal Portrush for the Irish Open.
Jose Maria Olazabal who with close friend the late great Seve Ballesteros thrilled spectators the world over, is all set for his North Coast debut.
Olazabal of course is no stranger to Ireland or the Irish Open having played 14 times before in the event.
He has also graced the European Open which was hosted for 13 years by the K Club and of course he was a member of Ian Woosnam’s victorious Ryder Cup team in Kildare.
And the 2012 European Ryder Cup Captain makes no bones as to the reason for his appearance.
He said: “Darren Clarke has been responsible in no small way for me being here.
“It’s fair to say Darren ‘sold’ the venue to me.
“We’ve talked in the past about Royal Portrush and he was always telling me how beautiful the location was and how fantastic and natural the links course is.
“He kept urging me to come and play it if I ever had the chance so when I heard the Irish Open was going there I simply had no choice but to enter.
“And I can’t wait to see the place for myself.”
Olazabal is a golfing legend having won the Masters twice – in 1994 and 1999.
He won six times on the American PGA Tour and 23 times in Europe as well as twice in Japan.
And he’ll never be forgotten for his exploits in the Ryder Cup alongside Seve Ballesteros having faced the Americans in 1987, 89, 91, 93, 97, 99 and 2006.
Olazábal first played in the Irish Open in 1986, just a year after turning professional.
He finisherd tied fourth behind his great friend and mentor Seve Ballesteros but retruerned to win it in 1990 winning by three shots from then Open Champion Mark Calcavecchia and Frank Nobilo.
Remarkably it was the first and last time that Olazábal was to win the title although he came second twice and had a total of ten top ten finishes to his name.
In 1993 he had to accept a runner-up finish at Killarney following a blistering finish by Nick Faldo, whose closing 65 carried him into a play-off which he won after the Spaniard bogeyed the first extra hole.
Looking back Olazábal recalls:”Obviously my favourite memory was winning at Portmarnock. I liked the way it looked and also the set up and how much the tide could affect the conditions. I think that 1990 was truly special, although I have always enjoyed the experience of going to Ireland.
“We tend to play great courses – some links, some parkland – but the atmosphere at the Irish Open has always been wonderful. The crowds are knowledgeable and cheerful and that always creates a great tournament atmosphere. It’s a great part of the world to visit.”
Olazábal knows that the Irish Open is certain to feel like the old days of the eighties and nineties, with the majority of tickets already sold for the eagerly-awaited return to Northern Ireland.
“Yes, I’ve heard it is virtually a sell-out,” he added. “With the Northern Irish boys playing in their home country and huge crowds, it is going to be an interesting week and I think we can expect one of the great Irish Opens.”
Such is the incredible popularity of the 2012 Irish Open, advance tickets for the final round on Sunday, July 1 are now sold out, with only a limited number still available for the first three rounds. Weekly season tickets are no longer on sale.