x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

How Rafael Cabrera-Bello returned from brink at Majlis Course

Chuck Culpepper watches the Spaniard recover from a seemingly impossible situation to win the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.

Rafael Cabrera-Bello won by one stroke in Dubai on Sunday.
Rafael Cabrera-Bello won by one stroke in Dubai on Sunday.

"I didn't hit a good drive." (Yeah, well, we've all been there.)

"I was just walking to the ball and when I was walking to it, I said, 'This is not going to look good'."

(In fact, it had strayed into what passes for Dubai forestation on the right side of No 16, into a sort of a pit with dirt and hardy vegetation. The only rational response was, OK, this guy's done.

"When I got there, I saw the ball was lying quite good but then I tried to look toward the green and I couldn't see it, it was all trees, trying to find a gap."

(So Rafael Cabrera-Bello, inexperienced contender, stood there and mulled, and the rest of us resumed watching other people such as Lee Westwood. For all we knew, Cabrera-Bello had settled in with a tent, a pith helmet and a canteen.)

"I was trying to find a big gap or something, and I just could not see a big gap. I mean, I just looked and I had to hit it underneath a few branches and over another tree."

(Who was this guy, anyway? Only the most fervent Googlers could have learnt that Cabrera-Bello hails from the Canary Islands, grew up with a garden that backed up on to a golf course, has joined the post-Ballesteros flood of Spanish professionals, had won the Austrian Open in 2009 with a closing 60 and had played only one major tournament, even if he did shoot 70 the first day at the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach after the airline temporarily left his clubs in Philadelphia.)

"The good thing is I was talking to my caddie and I was telling him that the branches didn't look thick."

(Uh oh.)

"This is literally what I said, 'The branches didn't look too thick'."

(Nothing like youthful audacity on a golf course. This could be very ugly, very soon.)

"But he told me, 'No, just play left', back into the fairway."

(Listen to the caddie, mate.)

"And I don't know, I just looked at it again. The ball was sitting up so good. I just said, OK, I know this is a very risky shot, but don't worry, it's my call and I'm just going to go for it."

(So he slapped the thing, the faces of some nearby witnesses looking almost sympathetic.)

"And then when I hit the ball, I'm just like, 'Please don't touch anything else. I don't want to hear any other noise.' And I didn't hear anything, I just started sprinting to the fairway to see if I could tell where it had finished."

(He had to sprint up a hill and through some trees and back into civilisation, to the part of the golf course where there is, you know, grass. He did not look necessarily ridiculous, but he also did not look like somebody who was going to finish ahead of, say, Westwood. But then … the ball … it stopped … right there on the left edge of the closing neck of the fairway, in plausible shape for extreme-sport par-saving, should he hit a nice pitch.)

"And then after, I just tried to tell myself, just, 'OK, this shot is over, and just relax, you've hit a great shot but that's already the past. Don't get too euphoric about it. You need to stay calm and it would be a pity obviously if you wouldn't save par after taking such a big risk'."

(From the fringe on the left he then hit sort of a funky chip, a low-flying thing that bypassed the cup and nestled in only two or three beyond.)

"It proved very important. It gave me that extra edge to play aggressive the next hole, and I hit a really, really good second shot and birdied and that was it. It was a really, really special hole [No 16], yeah."

(Even as happy as golfers seem after excruciatingly hard wins, Cabrera-Bello seemed happier. He fairly glowed. Part of it owed to feeling "proud that my name is going to be written down on the same trophy as Ballesteros and Olazabal and Jimenez and my great friend, Alvaro," meaning Quiros, the 2011 champion. Part of it owed to the rarity of wins and this being only his second. But a whole heap of it probably owed to his inexperience at the rarefied Sunday moments, and the idea that golf does give a peek at players' innards, and that he had to like what he saw of his own guts.)

cculpepper@thenational.ae