A mountain of memories for 'El Mecanico'

9/3/2013 12:09:00 PM
Miguel Angel Jimenez - King of the Mountains  (Getty Images)
Miguel Angel Jimenez - King of the Mountains (Getty Images)

By Mitchell Platts, europeantour.com 

Miguel Angel Jiménez remembers arriving at the railway station in Sion, capital of the wine- producing canton of Valais, and being mesmerised by the scenery as he sat on a bus making its way up the long and winding round to the most famous of Switzerland’s golf courses lodged 5,000 feet high in the Alps.

Jiménez was just 22 years old at the time and he had ventured from his home in Malaga to journey to Switzerland to test his game on the Crans-sur-Sierre course in the Olivier Barras Memorial – a tournament in memory of the country’s best amateur player and which will next year celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The year was 1986 and Jiménez was seeking as a raw professional to gain experience – he tied 149th at the Qualifying School later that year – and he would return in 1988 then move on to the Qualifying School again where this time he earned his playing privileges by finishing sixth.

So when Jiménez took the bus up the mountain for a third time in 1989 it was to play on The European Tour and with that a special affinity began for him with Crans-Montana. This week, he will make his 25th successive appearance in the Omega European Masters  which is being played for the 79th time.

    
 

Miguel Angel Jiménez has the honour of laying his own plaque
in 2011

Jiménez recalls: “Everything was so different in 1989. I was a young boy full of dreams and hope. It had been love at first sight when I first visited Crans in 1986 for the Olivier Barras Memorial and now it is very special to be playing my 25th successive European Tour event on the Crans-sur-Sierre course.

“I remember very well my first European Tour event. I shared a room with Manolo Moreno. We stayed at the Hôtel Le Miedzor like most of the Spanish players. We were a little lost, we did not speak a word of English, we travelled together and the more experienced players helped the newcomers.”

There was certainly good cause to celebrate in the hotel that week as Seve Ballesteros claimed the title, Jose Rivero finished fourth, José María Olazábal tied eighth, José María Cañizares and Manuel Garcia tied 11th and Jiménez tied 16th after opening rounds of 69 and 67.

“I was hooked by Crans and as we were leaving the hotel we asked if we could book a room for the following year,” Jiménez added. “I have been staying at the same place ever since! I am very good friends with the owners, Jan and Heidi, and since they converted the hotel into apartments they have kept the same one for me each year – my balcony overlooks the valley with a fantastic view.

“I have made many, very good friends over the years in Crans. My favourite restaurant is La Marquise where the owners Antonio – we call him the King of the Shrimps – and Giselle serve excellent Spanish food.”

Nevertheless what takes Jiménez back each year is the tournament and the golf course. He says: “It’s a great venue. You would never think there is a golf course up there in the mountains. They did a fantastic job when they created the course.

“My favourite holes are the seventh, 11th and 14th. The seventh is the one I like the most. It has a spectacular view overlooking the valley. It is a par four we can reach in one. When you walk up to the green, the air fills your lungs and your mind. It is an incredible feeling. Awesome! I nearly had a hole in one there on one occasion.

“The 11th is a par three where you can hit five or six iron, depending on the breeze. The green is well protected by left and right bunkers and you’ve got to play the perfect shot in order to bounce the ball at the right spot as the green has a lot of movement. The 14th is a downhill par five. You’ve got to hit a very straight drive and, when you hit it well, you then have the chance to reach in two.

“At Crans, you must hit the ball in the right place and hit it very, very straight. You must have control of the ball. I love it.”

That love is emphasised by the Spaniard’s record on the Crans-sur-Sierre course. In 24 appearances, he is 161 under par with ten top ten finishes including finishing runner-up in 1993 and 2004 and winning in 2010 when galvanised by a course record second round 61.

 

 
 Miguel Angel Jiménez pictured in 2007

Jiménez said: “It took me 22 years to win the title. It was one of the trophies I most wanted to win. I have always played well in Crans. I had a 63 when I finished second in 1993 although the 61 in 2010 was very special because Seve had changed and re-designed the greens since when the course has played a lot tougher.”

Ballesteros and Jiménez are among the many great champions, including Bobby Locke, Kel Nagle, Sir Bob Charles, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, Sir Nick Faldo, Craig Stadler, José María Olazábal, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Robert Karlsson, Ernie Els, Luke Donald and fellow Spaniards Manuel Piñero and Sergio Garcia, to have reached rarefied heights in the thin air of the mountains.

Their achievements are part of the folklore of a place steeped in history. The location is spellbinding with views over Mont-Blanc and the snowy Valais Alps with fir woods, fragrant Alpine flowers and emerald lakes all adding to the majesty of the scenery.

The event began life as the Swiss Open in 1923 and moved to Crans-Montana in 1939 where it has stayed - enhancing the promotion of Switzerland along with the likes of the Montreux Jazz Festival, the St Moritz Polo Tournament, The Lucerne Festival, the Locarno International Film Festival, the Indoors ATP World Tour tennis event and Art Basel - and since become the Omega European Masters.

This week is all about golf and Jiménez, who has returned from a Christmas skiing accident to make his 600th European Tour appearance in the BMW PGA Championship in which he finished fourth and to lead The 142nd Open Championship at the halfway stage, would enjoy nothing more than to win again before reaching his 50th birthday on January 5 of next year.

 He has proved, perhaps more than any other player, that age is no barrier – when he won in 2010 he became at 46 years and 243 days the oldest player to win three tournaments in a single season on The European Tour and only last November he won the UBS Hong Kong Open to become at 48 years and 318 days the oldest winner in European Tour history.

Jiménez, winner of 19 European Tour events and four times a European Ryder Cup player, said: “For me 2010 was a great season and I was very proud of what I achieved at the age of 46 although 1999 when I won the season-ending Volvo Masters and 2004 when I won four times were also fantastic. Beating records is something that we professionals are always looking to do but for me the main thing is to continue enjoying what I love the most – playing golf. My goal each day of my life is to play this great game. Golf has given me everything and I am very grateful.

“I feel very privileged. I love my job . I think I can still compete with the young generation. If one day I feel that I cannot play at their level then I will say ‘Hasta luego, Lucas!’”

Translated that, in a very colloquial way, means goodbye but Jiménez adds: “That is not on my mind. My mind is on continuing to play and, hopefully, I will stay fit and healthy and keep returning to Crans which has become part of my life.”

 

 
 Miguel Angel Jiménez finally gets his hands on the trophy at the 22nd attempt