Last Saturday at the Open de France, a distinguished-looking
gentleman tried to get into the players' lounge at Lyon Golf Club
with nothing more than a TV credential and was brusquely turned
away by a young security guard. Witnessing the scene, a passerby
accosted the guard. "How can you not know who this is?" the Good
Samaritan demanded. "This is Jean Garaialde, the greatest golfer
France has ever produced!" Minutes later, settled in the lounge,
Garaialde, 66, took the slight with good humor. "Thirty-two years
is a long time, no?" he said. "People forget. It is the way of
In 1969 Garaialde became the last Frenchman to win his country's
open championship, beating Roberto de Vicenzo in a three-hole
playoff at St. Nom-La-Breteche outside Paris. Memories of
Garaialde were revived last week. When Marc Farry of France took
a one-shot lead into Sunday's weather-induced 36-hole finale,
Garaialde, on hand to lend a graceful voice to the Canal Plus
telecast, was suddenly one of the stars. Alas, Farry, like so
many of his countrymen before him, crumbled, fading to sixth,
four strokes behind Jose Maria Olazabal.
"Someday the honor will be taken from me, and I will be happy to
see it happen," Garaialde says. But it's somehow fitting that he
remains the champion of French golf. In a career that spanned
more than three decades, Garaialde played in a record 25 World
Cups and, by his count, won 85 tournaments. "It's not just that
Jean was our best player," says Andre-Jean Lafaurie, Garaialde's
broadcast partner and the author of the 1994 biography Jean
Garaialde, Maitre de Golf. "For more than a quarter of a century
he was the only one."
Garaialde learned the game at the knee of his father, Ramon, who
was head pro at Chantaco Golf Club, in the Basque village of
Ascain, near Biarritz, the famed seaside resort in southwestern
France. A short, tight course, Chantaco forever shaped
Garaialde's precise game. A tale about Garaialde still makes the
rounds. During his heyday he was to play in a pro-am when the
amateur he was playing with turned up without golf shoes. Because
he and the amateur wore the same size, Garaialde lent him a pair,
but they came with a warning. "These shoes have never been in the
rough," Garaialde told him, "so if you hit it in, you must remove
them." Such was Garaialde's reputation that the first time the
amateur sprayed a shot into the long grass, he removed the shoes
and went after his ball in his stocking feet.
Renowned for his stone-faced Basque reserve--"On the course he was
the saddest man on Earth," says Lafaurie--Garaialde's career has
been punctuated by moments of exaltation. "As a Frenchman, to win
my national championship, it is something that lives in my heart
forever," says Garaialde. "As a sportsman, to beat [Jack]
Nicklaus head-to-head, that was the best moment of my career."
Their duel came at the 1970 Swedish Open, which Garaialde led
wire-to-wire. Holding a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus after 54
holes, he was paired with the Bear for the final round, and they
waged such a memorable battle that more than 30 years later
Garaialde can still recall the details of every shot. He had a
six-foot par putt at the 72nd hole to win. "It was right edge,"
Garaialde says, grabbing an interviewer's elbow for emphasis,
"and I made it straight in the middle."
The next day L'Equipe, the sports daily that's the largest
newspaper in France, gave this epic victory exactly one sentence.
Such was life in a country apathetic to golf. Garaialde made so
little in endorsements that even during his peak years he gave
lessons. Still, he says, "the game owes me nothing. It has given
me a life I never dreamed of." This boy from the backwaters has
sipped cocktails at the White House and played with the prime
minister of France and the king of Morocco. Now, Garaialde says,
"I want to give back what I know."
He has followed in his father's footsteps, taking a position as
master pro at Chantaco. Some years ago, at a group clinic, he
admired the fine form of a young woman named Angele. He and she
were married soon thereafter and have settled into a quiet life
in Ascain. Garaialde lists his interests as "soccer, food and
good wine," and he has two daughters to keep him young,
Alexandra, 5, and Laura, 3. (Garaialde has another daughter,
Christine, 40, from a previous marriage.)
"I will end my life just as it began," France's greatest golfer
says. "At Chantaco, with a golf club in my hand."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN