Jaime DiazApril 27, 2014

The Real Deal

Forget (if you can) the 'Most Interesting Golfer in the World' claims. Miguel Angel Jiménez is so much more intriguing than that.

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.

But when Jiménez tried to play the PGA Tour in 2002, he found himself missing the camaraderie of those late dinners he shared on the European Tour. With his game in shambles, a lonely Jiménez decided he needed to grow his hair long. "This is how I wore my hair when I was young," he explained to Matt Rollins of Ping, who has long worked on Jiménez's clubs. "It makes me feel young. Now I play young."

And so he did. Jiménez returned to Europe and won 13 times in his 40s, and he believes he is still improving. In retrospect, Jiménez breaking his right shinbone in a skiing accident at the end of 2012 might have been a turning point. Through his rehabilitation, he became devoted to working out, getting a trainer and developing his stretching regimen.

"Miguel loves wine and food too much to completely lose the belly, but he's actually in quite good shape," says swing instructor Jamie Gough, who Jiménez began working with last year to get a few more yards out of his 46-inch driver. The speed and fuller finish notable in the Jiménez post-50 swing is no accident

"He works like a Trojan," says Gough. "If he ever misses a cut, you will see him on the range all day Saturday."

Although he jokes about being lubricated by Rioja and olive oil, there's within Jiménez a significant element of Toledo steel as well. "I like the feeling of the knot in my stomach," he said at the Masters after a Saturday 66 that was the low round of the tournament. "I feel that thing since Monday when I got here. It doesn't disappear. I love that thing. That's why I'm still competing."

It's a quality both Seve Ballesteros and Olazábal wanted Jiménez to impart when they made him a vice-captain on their Ryder Cup teams. According to Lopez-Bachiller, before the final round of this year's Masters, Olazábal sought out his friend before he teed off in the third-from-last group to offer encouragement and express his admiration.

"Chema said, 'Miguel, look at me,'" said Lopez-Bachiller. "'You know how much I admire Seve, how much I learned from him, how he was my hero. Look at me. Today my hero is you. You can win Masters as well.'"

He didn't, shooting a 71 in which his hot putter cooled off, but the performance only reinforced Jiménez's belief that he can still win a major.

But if he doesn't, he will find fulfillment in other ways, including giving back by promoting Spanish junior golf and perhaps resurrecting the Andalucia Open, which he hosted for six years -- the last four of those contributing his own money to keep it alive when sponsors were scarce in the depressed Spanish economy.

"Miguel every year asked Tiger Woods to play," says Lopez-Bachiller. "He'd say, 'Tiger, why don't you play? Money? I don't have any money. But I will put you in a nice hotel, cook you some great meals and you can save my event.' He said that each time, Tiger smiled and politely said no. But when the time comes, he will ask him again."

To Jimenez, it's a simple equation. "I give all my life to golf, and golf gives me all my life," he says. It's a genuinely interesting man's way to not only live the good life, but a good life that's also a real thing.