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Man Of The Moment Stubborn yet serene, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain has finally arrived as the best player on the Continent

July 17, 2000
July 17, 2000

Table of Contents
July 17, 2000

Baseball Midseason Report

Man Of The Moment Stubborn yet serene, Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain has finally arrived as the best player on the Continent

By John Garrity Special Reporting By Luis Fernando Llosa

Let's start over. Let's ask this wiry, 36-year-old Spaniard to
step offstage and make another entrance. This time let's bring
him on with a fanfare of horns, the way they introduce matadors
to the bullring in his native Andalusia, and maybe get one of
those bellowing announcers to bust his tonsils with an ¬°el gran,
el magnifico, el insuperable campeon de golf! If you've got
confetti and streamers and a marching unit of schoolgirls
carrying red and yellow flags, bring them on too, because it's
not right that the best Continental golfer on the European tour
has the international profile of a caddie, even if he used to be
one.

This is an article from the July 17, 2000 issue Original Layout

It's not as if Miguel Angel Jimenez is bland. He speeds along
the twisting roads above his beloved Costa del Sol in a red
Ferrari. He collects Spanish wines and fusses over food like an
epicure. (If they gave frequent-flyer miles at tapas bars, he
would own Iberia airlines.) When Jimenez wins a tournament, or
even comes close--as he did last November, when he took Tiger
Woods to a playoff in the American Express Championship, up the
road at Valderrama--he celebrates with village folk at a
working-man's bar noted for the high-decibel tweets and trills
of its caged songbirds.

"He's stubborn like a bull," says club pro Andres Jimenez, a
longtime friend. "When he decides the white wall is actually
black, there's no way of convincing him otherwise." But Miguel is
also so charmingly relaxed, so tranquilo, that his certitude
never leads to a fight. "After a while," says Andres, "I am
easily convinced that the wall is, in some ways, black."

Can Miguel play? Yes. Jimenez won his fourth European tour event,
the 1998 Trophee Lancome, with a chip-in birdie on the final
hole. Since then he has won the Turespana Masters twice, taken
the 1999 Volvo Masters with a daring shot to the flag at the 72nd
hole, finished fourth for two straight years on the European
money list, played sparkling golf for the Euros in their Ryder
Cup loss to the U.S. at Brookline, won the deciding match in
Spain's 1999 Dunhill Cup victory and tied Ernie Els for second at
last month's U.S. Open--the best finish by a Continental in
tournament history. "The players say he has the strongest mind on
the European tour," says John Hopkins, the golf writer for The
Times of London.

Perhaps the strongest will as well. Jimenez led by two shots last
year when he came to the final hole of the Volvo Masters in
Jerez, Spain. The percentage shot from the fairway was an iron to
the fat of the green, away from water that runs along the left
and in front of the hole. Jimenez, however, went for the flag,
sealing his victory with one final thrust of the sword. His
friend and mentor, Seve Ballesteros, congratulated him warmly,
but not before saying, "What kind of crazy shot was that on the
18th? You could have lost the tournament!" To which Jimenez
replied, "All my friends were there. I wanted to make another
birdie for them."

Quiz Jimenez about his penchant for the risky shot, and he gives
you a droll look. "What's the shortest way to the flag?" he asks,
beginning to laugh. "It's straight, isn't it?" The subject came
up recently when he visited the Torrequebrada Golf Club outside
Malaga, the club where he caddied and learned to play. "I love to
hit to the flags," he says, looking beyond the clubhouse terrace
to the blue Mediterranean and the curving coastline. "To do
anything else never comes into my mind."

His older brother Juan, who taught Miguel the game and is still
his maestro, likes to tell how his brother, at the start of his
pro career, impressed the Spanish star, Jose Maria Canizares. The
two were teeing off in the first round of a tournament at
Bilbao's Real Golf Neguri. "They started on number 10, a par-5
with pines from tee to green on the left side," says Juan.
"Miguel hooks his drive into the trees, out-of-bounds. He tees up
again, hits another into the trees. He could have easily played
to the fairway, but he saw this shot in his mind. He hits another
ball into the trees, and another. He takes 13 shots on his first
hole." The kicker is that Canizares came to Juan after the round
and said, "Your brother is going to be a great player." Anyone so
cabezon (big-headed, stubborn), Canizares figured, had what it
took to play golf.

Miguel has since learned to temper his aggressiveness with common
sense--you don't finish second in a U.S. Open without the virtues
of patience and discipline--but he makes it clear that he would
rather hole out from the fairway to win one major than finish
second in a dozen. "Some players think only of money," he says.
"I don't see the game like that. I like to enjoy myself." How
does he enjoy himself? By living "momento to momento. You need to
live now."

Jimenez is willing to demonstrate. Get your car and follow him up
the mountain road to the cliffside restaurant El Higueron, where
the quality of the tapas is exceeded only by the magnificence of
the coastal view. Miguel will pour you a glass of La Guita, a
very dry Spanish sherry that pleases him. "My palate is
accustomed to the local wines," he says. He'll show you how to
wrap cold slices of salami and chorizo around a minibreadstick,
and how to mop up sardine bits, olive oil and hot scampi broth
with the spongy side of a hunk of bread. "You cannot find tapas
this good anywhere else in the world," he says, savoring every
bite. Then he'll light up a filtered Camel and puff contentedly.

His friend Andres Jimenez was startled last November when Miguel
called him the night before the final round of the American
Express and invited him and his wife over for dinner with some
other couples. "He's having his wine and fried fish," Andres
recalls, "totally relaxed and having fun, as if tomorrow were
just another day. To him it's something simple, playing against
Tiger Woods and all those guys."

It is simple, when Jimenez considers the alternatives. He is one
of seven brothers who grew up in Churriana, a narrow-streeted
village that climbs the foothills above the Malaga airport.
"Everybody there is either a farmer or in the service industry,"
says Juan Jimenez, who is 12 years older than Miguel. "Cooks and
waiters."

And golf pros. Juan started as a caddie at the Parador de Golf, a
course next to the airport. When he decided, in his late teens,
that he wanted to become a pro, his father--a construction worker
who became the locker room attendant at Torrequebrada--warned that
Juan would never be able to support himself. The scenario was
repeated a decade later when Juan, by then the head pro at
Torrequebrada, told his father that 16-year-old Miguel might also
have talent, even though he had just taken up the game. "Our
parents said, 'There is no future in this,'" Juan says, "but I
had already made it happen for me, so they couldn't say no to
Miguel." Besides, Miguel wasn't making much sweeping the floor in
a local garage.

The training of Miguel Angel Jimenez would make a modern swing
coach shake his head. He caddied almost every day and took charge
of the driving range for Juan, picking up balls and moving around
the tee markers. The rest of the time Miguel practiced, going to
his brother with questions that Juan answered in a few words or
with a simple demonstration. "That's the way," Juan would say.
"Go work."

For Miguel, a bright youngster with an antipathy for book
learning, the snippet approach was perfect. "When you're
starting, you don't need a guy standing behind you like this," he
says, folding his arms and looking thoughtful in imitation of
David Leadbetter. "You need to develop a feel." Juan pretends he
had little to do with Miguel's success. "I didn't teach him," he
says. "He learned from me."

The Jimenez swing is long, flat and loopy, reflecting its
homemade origins, but Ballesteros disagrees with those who say it
is a bad swing. "His swing reminds me of Bobby Jones's because he
takes the club inside the line and then brings it down on line,"
Ballesteros says. "He is a very good ball striker."

As for why Jimenez has suddenly blossomed as a player in his 30s,
the Spanish delegation is in agreement. "He has begun to believe
in himself, to believe that he can win," says Sergio Garcia.
"More self-confidence," says Jose Maria Olazabal. Ballesteros,
who gave Jimenez's ego a boost by naming him European vice
captain for the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, says, "He whined a
lot last year about how poorly he was playing and would ask me,
'Seve, what do you think? I don't feel comfortable with my game.'
That same week he would end up among the top three in the
tournament."

Jimenez is known to be a character. His nickname, the Mechanic,
derives from his interest in cars and the fact that two of his
brothers are mechanics. (Andres Jimenez, who played with Miguel
on the developmental Challenge tour in the late '80s, remembers
Miguel disassembling a carburetor on the table of a hotel room in
Lyon, France, the week he won his first tournament outside
Spain.) "He's always ready to horse around and tell jokes," says
Olazabal. "When things don't go well for us and we are in dark
moods, he is the first to say, 'It's no big deal, guys. Let's
lighten up and be more alegre [happy].'"

Jimenez's good humor was welcome at the '99 Ryder Cup, in which
he played all five matches and earned two points. ("The emotion
was overwhelming," Jimenez says. "I had chicken skin for five
rounds.") His amiability has kept him out of the brouhaha
emanating from the Americans' stunning come-from-behind victory
as his teammates and '99 captain Mark James have split into
finger-pointing factions. Jimenez refuses to get involved,
saying, "The water that's already passed doesn't turn the wheel
anymore."

That Jimenez is virtually unknown in the U.S. and in Britain can
be explained by the language barrier and by the fact that he is
less flamboyant on the golf course than off it. But Ballesteros
complains that even the European and Spanish press "have not
given [Miguel] the credit that he deserves."

Not that he would want more attention than he gets in Andalusia.
Every time he wins a tournament, his family and friends throw a
party for him at Chico, a storefront bar and hamburgueseria in
Churriana. At Chico, the incessant warbling of caged jilgueros
competes with a jukebox, loud talk, laughter and the clacking of
domino tiles. Many of the regular patrons are club pros and
assistants, and one wall is covered with golf photographs and
clippings, mostly about Jimenez. "For us, Miguel is like a god,"
says club pro Pepe Navarro. "He has created a love and interest
in golf even among the people who don't know anything about it."

There are a few changes ahead for Jimenez. He and his wife,
Montserrat, will soon trade their hillside house in Benalmadena
for a remodeled manse in Churriana--the wine cellar is under
construction--so his wife's parents can more easily babysit sons
Miguel Angel, 5, and Victor, 1, when Miguel is off on his long
trips. Those trips will get longer. Jimenez plans to play 15 PGA
Tour events next year, starting with an early-season stretch on
the West Coast when the European tour is humping through Africa,
Asia and Australia. He swears, however, that he will never move
to the States or anywhere far from the Costa del Sol. Not for
fame. Certainly not for fortune. "Money helps you live," he says,
"but your values have to be the same. To love people and be with
people is more important."

When we last saw him, he was walking up one of those narrow,
twisted lanes into the shadows between whitewashed buildings. No
fanfare. No streamers. But when you live life as fully as Miguel
Angel Jimenez, who needs them?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRISCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS PRO BRO Miguel learned from Juan (above), who's still his maestro.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK TEAM PLAYER Jimenez played in all five sessions of the 1999 Ryder Cup.
"Says Ballesteros, "His swing reminds me of Bobby Jones's
because he takes the club inside the line and then brings it
down on line."
"Jimenez refuses to join James's critics, saying, "The water
that's already passed doesn't turn the wheel anymore."