May 7, 2014
Without ever seeking the designation -- indeed in large part because he didn't -- Miguel Angel Jiménez has become "a thing."
The catalyst has been his remarkable golf, so let's first give props to Jiménez as a player. There's the fourth-place finish at the Masters at age 50 (the best at that age or older since Sam Snead finished third in 1963), followed by his victory the next week in his inaugural Champions Tour event (his first win in America). Late last year he broke his own record as the oldest victor on the European Tour. Jiménez is currently the 32nd-ranked player in the world.
The streak is on temporary hold because Jiménez took time out to get married (for the second time) last Saturday. The ceremony took place on the seventh hole of the par-3 course at the Miguel Angel Jiménez Golf Academy in Torremolinos, Spain, just down the road from where he was born in Málaga, the fifth of seven brothers. The hole approximates the 12th at Augusta National, and Jiménez named it "Angustias," which in Spanish means anguishes.
Jiménez's competitive intensity is sometimes underestimated, but the one thing he never seems to project -- on and especially off the course -- is anguish. Among his peers Jiménez is admired above all for his joie de vivre.
"He plays the way we all want to play -- he has fun," says Tom Lehman. "That's the key thing to having a long career in this game. A big part of why he is still so good is that Miguel carries over his philosophy of living to his game."
Jiménez is also admired for his feel, his shotmaking, his confidence and his guts. Certainly by the standards of the regular tours, he is short off the tee, and his flat action has always looked funky. But he curves the ball both ways with control -- a Continental version of Corey Pavin -- and avoids big mistakes. He's won 20 times on the European Tour and played on four Ryder Cup teams, as well as serving as vice-captain on two others. He has no plans to play the Champions Tour again this year because he's dead set on making it to Gleneagles in September to become the oldest European squad member ever. The guy maximizes.
"He's pretty straight, pretty good with the irons, has a pretty good short game and is a pretty good putter," says Tommy Armour III, another player who has long projected cool. "It adds up to a really very good player. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
But the above is insider stuff appreciated by golf purists. Jiménez is a thing -- a cult hero edging into crossover territory -- because he so easily brings to mind the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" television commercials. Once known as "The Mechanic," he is now the Most Interesting Golfer in the World.
Jiménez looks the part, a hirsute Latin with a Spanish accent and a unique individual style. From there, it's a short leap to imagine him possessing the Bond-like air of supreme-yet-casual confidence that makes the character in the beer commercials (actor Jonathan Goldsmith says he channeled his late friend, Fernando Llamas, when he began doing the ads in 2006) so entertaining. The mock-reverential voice-over lines celebrating the character's absurd omnipotence are the heart of the joke. Goldsmith's personal favorite is "He once warned a psychic." For me, it's a tie between "He once parallel-parked a train" and "His mother has a tattoo that reads 'Son.' "
Approximately since last year's British Open, where Jiménez's lead after 36 holes prompted ESPN to do a takeoff on the commercial, the Internet memes about the most interesting golfer in the world have spawned some memorable lines, including, "When he talks to a hook, it listens," "Masters galleries know him as The Patron," and "Nick Faldo calls him Sir."
Tellingly, Jiménez himself doesn't get it. In the ESPN segment, his brief performance was marked by the way he disconnectedly and too quickly looked off camera immediately after delivering his single line -- "Stay under par, my friends." At his senior debut outside Atlanta, he explained his benign resistance.
"I don't like to compare myself with anything," he said. "Here people like all these kind of things, to make funny. It's fine. I don't care. It's nice. I saw once. Looks nice."
But maybe Jiménez shouldn't get it. If he were transparently trying to be interesting, he would be boring. Let's face it, the man lacks dashing good looks. The red ponytail borders on the bizarre, and it crosses into fright-wig territory when he lets it down in his off-hours. Sure, he rocks the Ferrari and the Cohibas and the aviator sunglasses, but there's also the potbelly that fairly shouts "over-the-hill Spanish grandee lounge lizard." And Jiménez's startlingly unselfconscious stretching routine, a graphic spectacle that has become must-see on practice ranges and the Internet? Right out of Austin Powers. How about "the most ridiculous man in the world"?
Yet it all works because Jiménez is, above all, authentic. As he says, "I don't hide myself." The audacious comfort level creates charisma, allowing Jiménez to assume the lead at late dinners among big groups that are his favorite activity. He typically orders for everyone, and usually, because of his close relationship with so many restaurant owners at tournament venues, house specialties off the menu. He is also known for expertly commandeering the kitchens in the homes he rents at major championships.
"I have never met anyone who loves every single moment of his life so much," says his friend Maria Acacia Lopez-Bachiller, the longtime Spanish player liaison to the European Tour. She says José Maria Olazábal -- who as an introverted ascetic from the north of Spain is outwardly Jiménez's opposite -- loves to tell the story of his close friend standing nearly naked in front of a locker-room mirror (the mind's eye can't avoid a vision of bikini briefs), and saying, "Vascorro [Spanish for Basque], I am such a beautiful man."
"That is Miguel -- he thinks of himself as fantastic," says Lopez-Bachiller. Indeed, the most interesting man in the world line that seems to best apply to Jiménez is: "He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it was like."
Actually, Jiménez had to overcome an awkward start. The son of a Málaga mason, Miguel and his brothers contributed needed family funds by working at the nearby Torrequebrada course. Jiménez picked up balls on the driving range and later caddied. He began to play by copying his older brother Juan, who remains his primary teacher. Miguel early on also followed his affinity for cars, at one point working in a repair shop. But though the experience earned him his first nickname, he was allowed to do little more than wash the vehicles and soon quit.
Jiménez dropped out of high school, turned pro and began traveling in two small cars with six other Spanish players to play in mini-tour events all over the country. Jiménez is the only one of the six who made it as a player, but according to Lopez-Bachiller, the group remains close, getting together annually for a retreat in the mountains near Granada.
What may have separated Jiménez from his peers was the duality of his personality. Along with the pleasure-seeking side that Andalucians on the Costa Del Sol typically revel in, Jiménez is also what Spaniards call cabezota, hard-headedly determined.
It took five tries at Q school before Jiménez secured his European Tour card in 1989, but with a startling work ethic, he began to play well in the late 1990s, first coming to the attention of the American public when he finished tied for second -- albeit by 15 strokes -- in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.