Fifteen years ago a son of a Spanish fish farmer defied the might of the European Tour, sensationally hooking a maiden victory in the oldest ‘Open’ golf tournament on Continental Europe.
A then 25-year old Pablo Larrazabal left the golf world floundering, leading from start-to-finish in capturing a maiden Tour title at the 2008 Open de France title at the Le National course outside of Versailles.
For the Barcelona-born Larrazabal, it was only his 16th European Tour event, having finished sixth overall at the Tour’s 2007 Q-School to earn full 2008 Tour status, and also earning his place in the French tournament the hard way, battling his way through a 36-hole qualifier.
Larrazabal honed his golf at high school in the US and in returning to Spain in 2002, it was his intentions to turn pro but his father, Gustavo wanted him to work on the family fish farm in Cantabria, on the Bay of Biscay near Bilbao to basically understand the value of money. He eventually turned pro in 2004.
Golf had always been a favoured family sport as his parents played the game while his older brother Alejandro Larrazábal won The Amateur Championship in 2002 at Royal Porthcawl with the teenage Pablo acting as caddy. The win was a third Spanish victory after Jose Maria Olazabal won the Amateur in 1984 and Sergio Garcia in 1998, and still the only three Spaniards to do so.
Alejandro’s victory earned him a 2003 Masters invitation and with Pablo travelling to Georgia as his caddy. Disappointingly, and now 20-years on it’s the only major Pablo’s not contested. In turning pro, Alejandro struggled and ended-up caddying full-time for Olazabal.
Larrazabal posted a French Open opening round score of 65 to lead one of the strongest fields all season in Europe. The story for the day was unquestionably this relatively unknown Spanish golfer, and who worked on his father’s fish farm, was leading one of the biggest tournaments in Europe.
Well so much for fish-and chip wrappings, as the next day as Larrazabal was still news in adding a second day 70 to be now tied at the top and, no doubt, a great many believing this would be Larrazabal’s highwater mark in the Euro 4m event.
Larrazabl had other ideas, going out to shoot a third round 67 to now lead by three shots from Colin Montgomerie and Soren Hansen who shared second.
Tim Barter was working the tournament that week for SKY Sports Golf. I was standing beside Tim when one of the questions he asked of the then eight-time European Tour No. 1 Monty, and with the powerhouse Scot looking to capture a second French Open title eight years after his first, was what he thought of Pablo Larrazabal.
Monty responded: “Pablo who?” Barter said: “Pablo Larrazabal, the young Spaniard leading the tournament by three shots”. Monty replied saying: “Well, let’s just call him Pablo for the time being”.
With his parents, his brother and girlfriend but now ex-wife, Gala Alten standing at the back of the 18th green, Larrazabl posted a second straight 67 to leave Monty eating his words in finishing a distant runner-up, four shots behind.
Larrazabal was handed the historic trophy, a cheque for a whopping Euro 666,660 and a tee-time in the up-coming Open Championship and what was to be a maiden Major showing.
Waiting by the green was fellow Spaniards Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño and Nacho Garrido who ensured Larrazabal celebrated properly by shallow diving into the water at 18. Also watching on was Roman Taya, the El Prat professional who has given Larrazábal the twist he needed to win. “Today I will sleep with my putter,” he said.
Having spent seven months learning how the ordinary people have to work hard for their money, Larrazabal remarked on winning: “Beating Montgomerie, one of the three best European players ever, and Westwood, who nearly won the US Open, gives me a great feeling.”
Asked if his role model was Seve Ballesteros, he retorted: “No, I want to hit the ball straighter than that – there is no better role model than Tiger Woods.”
It was the first of eight victories for Larrazabal, and with his four shot French Open success still the largest winning margin.
Three years later Larrazabal defeated Garcia in a play-off to capture the 2011 BMW Championship in Munich while grabbing a notable triumph in denying Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, who were joint runner-up behind Larrazabal at the 2014 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The long-time Callaway Golf supported Larrazabal’s latest victory is an eighth Tour success in eight different countries, spanning two months shy of 15-years.
It’s also taken his DP World Tour career earnings in 407 tournaments to just over Euro 11.5m in prize-money.
Not bad for the son of a fish farmer!
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