It was two weeks from this year’s Masters, and Rafael Cabrera-Bello was on the outside looking in. The top 50 players in the world get invited, and he was sitting at 52nd, needing a monumental performance at the WGC-Dell Match Play to have a chance to play in the world’s biggest tournament. As he eyed down a 75-foot putt on the 15th hole, he searched for a spark. “I knew it was going to be a very difficult putt; the ball was almost going to roll sideways,” he said. He gave it a whack. “When it was six or seven feet away, I knew it was a good putt, but I expected it to stop beside the hole.” Then, the ball crept closer, and with one final, tired rotation, dropped in. He gave a fist pump, raised his arms skyward, and flashed a “Hook ’em Horns” sign with his hands (the tournament was in Austin; the man knows his audience). Cabrera-Bello parlayed the epic putt into a career-best 3rd place PGA finish at the tournament, and then on to the Masters, where he placed a very solid 17th.
There is a rich history of Spanish legends, like Seve Ballesteros, José María Olazábal, and Sergio García, succeeding on the PGA Tour, and it feels like Cabrera-Bello is built to be next. He is effortlessly cool and candid in person, with a beaming smile. He mostly ditches those canned answers that golfers love to use — “The course is beautiful. Playing really fair. Just have to put myself in a nice position to make birdie out there” — and he has a taut physique also absent from many of his competitors. He also has the surf skills of an X Games stud, which he hones at his house in Bali, and a drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriend. In the days leading up to golf’s first appearance in the Olympics since 1904, I sat down with Cabrera-Bello in Rio, and here’s what he had to say.
On the top golfers skipping the Olympics: “It doesn’t change it to me. It’s as important and as valuable to me as when I thought they were coming. Our health is our biggest asset, so I do understand some people not wanting to come considering the potential risks, but I also did my risk evaluation, and decided I wanted to come. I’m proud to be here. I’m sure some of the ones that didn’t come are going to regret it. I understand their position, I just don’t share it.”
On Sergio García and Rafael Nadal: “I flew in [to the Olympics] with Sergio [García]. We’re very close. Friends since the amateur days. He’s a bit older than me, but his family and my family have been friends since I was fourteen years old, or even younger than that. I’ve always had great admiration for his success.
Also, with the tennis players…we spent a lot of time with them in the opening ceremony. We know [Rafael Nadal] is a keen golfer. He has a weird swing, but he’s a good player. He’s got a draw…or maybe a slice.”
On the Olympic Village: “I walk to breakfast, and every time you see someone wearing the same uniform as you, you say, ‘Hi,’ and ask them what their discipline is. You sit down for lunch with someone who is maybe from a different country, and start chatting.”
On the design of the Olympics course: “It reminds me a little bit of Australian-style courses, with big bunkers and lots of movement on the greens. There is also a lot of water on the course. I do think the fairways are quite generous. There are hardly any trees at all, just a few bushes outside the fairway.
The biggest defense of the course is the wind. If it’s not windy, scores will be very low. If the wind picks up as it normally does in this time of year in this area, then it will be a good test.”
On the differences between the PGA Tour and European Tour: “I’ve always wanted to do a mixed schedule — play half on the European tour, half on the PGA tour. I think the fact that we Europeans are all from different countries, it takes a little pressure off and there is a little less rivalry. I think that’s why there’s always been a bit more camaraderie between Europeans than Americans.
Also, I’m a continental European guy. I like to play in a city where I’m staying in a hotel and I can walk out to dinner. That’s hard to do in the US, where it’s isolated venues and you need to drive a long time for everything, or just stick with your entourage. This year, though, I’ve become friends with some of the [US players] and enjoyed my time. Also, the results happening make it easier.”
On new gear at the games: “The lenses on my glasses are really unbelievable. I used to carry a G30 [lens], gray Iridium, black Iridium, and the photochromic one; now it’s just Oakley Prizm. The way it highlights green and blue, it just makes it perfect for me. It has a big impact for me on longer shots when you have to see a reference point.”
On the future of golf in the Olympics: “It’s great that we have this opportunity now. I really enjoy it and I would hope that one day it could become our fifth major. All the golfers here are really excited about [that idea], at least the ones I’ve been talking to. Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, Dutch Joost Luiten, Paraguayan Fabrizio Zanotti — we’re all extremely happy to be here. We don’t exactly know what the tournament is going to involve, but as an experience it will be extremely special and totally different.”