The Estrella Damm Andalucía Masters is always a big occasion for the world of golf in Spain and the recent 2021 event was even more so for a variety of reasons. The tournament doubled its prize purse, it had Spanish player and world number one, Jon Rahm, taking part, and it opened its doors to the public with an almost unrestricted capacity. The new normal at Valderrama, following the 2020 event which had been held without spectators because of the pandemic, saw fairways lined by fans who came to see their idols play. One of those fans was Pau Gasol. The best Spanish basketball player of all time came to play another sport he is passionate about – golf.
Along with Adri Arnaus and Luis Figo, he took part in the pro-am at Valderrama in the Estrella Damm Andalucía Masters, off a handicap of 25. He did much more than that though – he raised the profile of a sport which sometimes gets below-par media coverage. The exceptional nature of a visit by somebody of his stature, which this sport does not see very often in Spain, left us with the image of Pau Gasol and Jon Rahm, chatting under one of the many centuries-old cork oaks on the course.
And the fact is that Pau Gasol’s lockdown has led him – like many others it seems, given the increase in membership of Spain’s golf federations – to head to the nearest course and take up a sport which has benefitted from the pandemic as it is non-contact and played in the open air. And beyond the pandemic and its consequences, it is one of the healthiest physical activities there is, according to a study carried out by the WHO, and does not cause injury, meaning it is ideal for all ages.
The Estrella Damm Andalucía Masters 2021 is where we caught up with Pau Gasol and talked to him about his retirement from the court, his future plans and golf, a lot of golf.
A brilliant first season earned him the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 – at the time he was the only non-American player to have won it. Finding a niche in a league that in the past was only for Americans must have been tough, how do you recall your beginnings in the NBA?
I was very excited, a bit nervous and keen, very keen to do well and to learn. It was a period of adapting to a new life, a new team, a new culture, a new country… But I was lucky to have the support of my family, who were there for me at all times.
How did your friendship with Kobe Bryant influence you, on a sporting and personal level?
It has influenced my life in a very positive way. On a professional level, we complemented each other very well, we were part of a special team with whom we were able to win two championships. During that time, we learned what it means to work, what it takes to be the best and to work every day to be the best. On a personal level, there were very significant moments in which our relationship went a bit beyond basketball and sport, and we were able to develop a very close relationship that, unfortunately, due to the accident, could not go on. However, this has not stopped us from being like family with Vanessa, the girls and the rest of their family.
We imagine that the time to retire was one of the most difficult decisions of your sporting and personal life. When and how did the idea of hanging up your boots start to take shape?
As you get older and older you realise the time to retire is approaching, especially when you have had a career as long as mine. Also, when you suffer two fractures in your foot, the first one in 2019, a process of reflection begins and you start to consider the possibility your sporting career has come to an end, despite having worked at the chance of playing a little longer and ending your career playing.
Now that retirement is a reality, how are you coping with not competing?
Well, I try to funnel my urge to grow by doing other things and channelling my values and everything that has marked my sporting career into other areas, whether it be: good causes, with my foundation and UNICEF; the world of leadership and transferring knowledge to others, through books or documentaries and corporate events; and, of course, my position within the International Olympic Committee, which is also a big responsibility that takes up a large part of my time. On top of all this, there is being a father and my family, which is a big commitment. I’m busy, I really am.
The four-part docuseries on your career, especially the last two years, is called “The journey is what matters”, which is a real mission statement. What precisely did you want to get over in this documentary?
Above all, the personal and family side of our journey, how we manage a moment of adversity and uncertainty. Also, how I face up to, think through and prepare myself for the inevitable moment of the end of a sporting career and how I do it with my family around me. The support of my family and my professional team is key to seeing it through to the end. The important thing is the journey and the values that guide you in everything you do.
How did golf come into your life?
Golf came into my life during lockdown. With all the restrictions on movement, golf was one of the few activities you could do. At a time when I was not competing, it was like an escape route on an emotional level. It was also a way to connect with nature a bit and it was a challenge to learn a new sport while the world was at a standstill due to the pandemic.
How long have you been playing?
A year and a half.
What attracts you to the sport?
The stimulus of a new activity. It is a very wholesome sport and it has helped me with transitioning from a professional career like mine. It is easier on the body, but you also move about and are active, make friends and so on. It has had a very positive effect on me mentally after my recovery and during the pandemic.
What similarities, if any, do you see between golf and basketball?
At the end of the day, if you want to improve you have to dedicate time and be methodical, start with the basics, have good coaches, a lot of concentration when executing each movement, study each stroke… The details make the difference. I like the mental and strategic stimulation both sports have.
You looked very comfortable in the pro-am at the Andalucía Valderrama Masters; what did you think of Valderrama?
It is a spectacular course, possibly one of the best in the world. I am lucky enough to have played here before, but I had a great time experiencing it and I look forward to coming back and playing again with friends.
They say that golf is addictive; has this happened to you?
Let me tell you – it’s happened to me! You get bitten by the bug and then you’re off. The only thing is you have to have time to dedicate to it, because you can see yourself improve, but improving takes time. No doubt about it, it’s a sport that gets you hooked.
At Valderrama you played with fellow-Catalan Adri Arnaus; is it the first time you played together? Who do you usually practice with?
No, it wasn’t the first time, we had played a couple of times before on two courses in Catalonia. I was lucky enough to meet Adri at the Tokyo Olympics. We started talking and, apart from being a great player, he’s a great guy. I hope we can play many more times.
I have practiced with different professionals and instructors. As I’ve moved around a lot, I’ve been lucky enough to train with Nacho (Ignacio Barrido), Adri’s coach. I try to learn from everyone and when I play with Adri, he coaches me.
I usually play with family – my wife, brother-in-law, father-in-law – or with friends I have met thanks to the world of golf. I like to explore the courses wherever I go – I really enjoy being in nature so it’s great for me. The golf courses seem to me like jewels in terms of their vegetation; they are very well looked after and so beautiful that the time flies by.
What would be your ideal course to play a round of golf on?
I would like to play St Andrews, the home of golf, where the sport started. Also in Ireland, England, there are lots. Another one I would like to play is Cypress Point in California, one of the best in the world. It’s not easy to get onto, but it is on my list.
Your good friend Rafa Nadal is an accomplished golfer with a very low handicap; have you played with him yet?
No, we haven’t yet. I’m sure, as soon as we get the chance, we’ll play each other.