European tour veteran Barry Lane shook his head and smiled after
Jose Maria Olazabal one-putted four of the first five greens in
his return to tournament golf. "You sure you haven't played for
18 months?" Lane asked, grinning. Last week's Dubai Desert
Classic showed that maybe it's time to scratch Olazabal from the
disabled list and put him on the active roster. Sure, there's
still a faint limp from the foot ailment that threatened to
cripple him and prematurely end a promising golf career, but it
was barely noticeable as Olazabal played his way into contention
with a sparkling third-round 65 and eventually tied for 12th at
279, nine under par.
Olazabal's feet still aren't 100%, but his skills, on display
for the first time since the Trophee Lancome in Paris in
September 1995, showed no signs of rust. That was the big
surprise in Dubai--not only is Olazabal back, a fairly stunning
development following a drawn-out medical saga, but he played
pretty well. "We thought there was no chance of Ollie coming
back," said Spain's Domingo Hospital, the second-round leader.
"After his first diagnosis, everybody said he was going to end
up in a wheelchair."
The return of Olazabal would be good news for the European Ryder
Cup team, which could use some since its captain and spiritual
leader, Seve Ballesteros, is hard-pressed to break 80 these
days--he actually shot a second-round 84 in Dubai. A comeback by
Olazabal would also be good news for Masters fans. Off his Dubai
success, Olazabal is likely to tee it up in Augusta, where he
won in 1994, although the introverted 31-year-old speaks
cautiously, when he speaks at all. "What happens now? I'm going
home to rest," Olazabal said on Sunday. "I'm thrilled with how
the week went, and I hope to play in Portugal in 10 days. The
Masters? We'll have to see. That's a very hilly course and would
be particularly killing. But who knows? The chances are a great
deal higher than they were." As for his feet, Olazabal had two
things to say. One: "I'm not talking about them." Two: "They are
no worse than they were yesterday."
Olazabal's return apparently was made possible by Dr. Hans
Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, a German homeopathic specialist who
determined that the pain in Olazabal's feet came from a lower
back hernia and not rheumatoid arthritis, as doctors at the Mayo
Clinic and elsewhere had said. Olazabal played 18 holes on Feb.
24 and 25 in Dubai, then practiced for five hours each day,
taking only a five-minute break every hour. He birdied three of
the last four holes in his opening round for a head-turning 69
at the Emirates Course. "For him to break 70 on a good golf
course is tremendous," said Colin Montgomerie, Europe's top
money winner the last four seasons. "The boy's got a little
something extra, hasn't he?"
Olazabal shot 74 the next day and made the cut despite a triple
bogey at the 18th hole, where he hooked his tee shot into the
trees and splashed a third shot into a pond. "I wanted to play
four days, that was my ambition," Olazabal said. "It was tough
at times. I'm struggling to shape my shots."
He didn't struggle on Saturday when he birdied the first three
holes, went eight for eight on six-foot putts and shot the 65,
moving within five shots of Ian Woosnam's lead. The highlight
came at the 18th, where he had made the snowman the previous
day. A good drive left him with 230 yards over the water to the
front of the green. "I was saying to myself, Please, God, don't
let him reach for the three-wood," said caddie John Mulrooney.
Olazabal pulled the three-wood. "Are you certain that's the
club?" Mulrooney asked. "Certain," Olazabal replied.
A gust of wind made him back off once, then he addressed the
ball again and whistled a low, wind-cheating shot that carried
the water with 15 feet to spare and stopped 45 feet from the
hole. "I knew it was tight, but it was a good test, the sort of
shot that gives you confidence," said Olazabal, who two-putted
Greg Norman, who was making his first start of the season and
wound up sharing second with Woosnam when Australian lefty
Richard Green birdied the first hole of a three-man playoff,
chuckled when he saw Olazabal's name moving up the leader board
on Saturday. "I said to myself, Once a competitor, always a
competitor," Norman said.
A bogey at the par-5 3rd hole on Sunday kept Olazabal from
coming close to winning--something he admitted he wasn't ready
to do--but a closing 34 made his showing respectable. The same
couldn't be said of the play of Ballesteros, Olazabal's longtime
Ryder Cup partner. He opened with a 74, followed with the
disastrous 84 and missed the cut. His 158 was 14 over par and
better than only two other players. Ballesteros had finished
147th among 160 players two weeks earlier in Sun City, South
Africa, and was 133rd out of 158 in Johannesburg the week before
that. "It's painful to watch," says Peter Mitchell, who was
paired with Ballesteros in Dubai. "If it was me, I would want to
cut my wrists."
Instead, Ballesteros headed to Germany and an appointment with
Dr. Muller-Wohlfahrt, who will examine Seve's aching lower back.
"I feel sad," Olazabal says. "He has to feel it. Deep down, I'm
sure he'll overcome it, but he has lost confidence."
That commodity is returning to the Olazabal camp. Sergio Gomez,
the player's manager, happily brandished a cigar before Olazabal
teed off last Thursday. "This is really an occasion," he said.
"Once the first drive is away, I'll light this Havana."
He might want to take a box of them to Augusta.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT Olazabal took aim on the Masters with three subpar rounds. [Jose Maria Olazabal golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT An embarrassing 84 persuaded Ballesteros (right) to take a tip from Olazabal and visit his doctor. [Jose Maria Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros]