I DIDN’T RE­ALISE HOW BIG IT WAS TO WIN THE MAS­TERS. I WAS OVER­COME

SPAN­ISH GOLF­ING GREAT JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL STILL WELLS UP WHEN HE THINKS ABOUT CLAIM­ING HIS TWO GREEN JACK­ETS

Daily Mail - - Augusta Countdown - by Derek Lawren­son Golf Cor­re­spon­dent

IF Tiger Woods were to win the Mas­ters next week, you can be sure it would be hailed as the com­ple­tion of the great­est golf­ing come­back since Ben Ho­gan re­cov­ered from a near fa­tal car ac­ci­dent to win six ma­jors more than 60 years ago.

But there is a more re­cent ref­er­ence point that bears scru­tiny for comparison, and that is the re­mark­able Spa­niard Jose Maria olazabal, who will cel­e­brate two no­table an­niver­saries at Au­gusta Na­tional this year.

it’s 25 years since the cho­sen heir to Seve Balles­teros de­liv­ered on his prom­ise to win the Mas­ters for the first time, and 20 years since he com­pleted his own mirac­u­lous come­back from an arthritic foot in­jury so de­bil­i­tat­ing there were weeks when he could not walk, and had to crawl to the bath­room.

‘it might seem a strange thing to say but i went through the whole painful process with a bet­ter peace of mind be­cause i had one green jacket,’ olazabal says now. ‘don’t get me wrong, it was really tough to watch golf on tele­vi­sion when

I couldn’t even leave the house and there were many times i thought my ca­reer was over. But it def­i­nitely helped that i had my ma­jor.

‘You fall back on your be­lief, your fam­ily, and your per­sonal will, and my will was strength­ened be­cause of my win at the Mas­ters. i would imag­ine Tiger, with his 14 ma­jors, will be feel­ing that even more.’

olazabal is 53 now and has the worn look of a man who has ex­pe­ri­enced fate’s ex­tremes.

golf never came easy to him, and it shows. He’s still play­ing, usu­ally on the Cham­pi­ons Tour in America, but it has been a while since he was in con­tention.

Au­gusta Na­tional, with its mon­strous mod­ern-day yardage, is al­most lit­er­ally miles too long for him, but the plea­sure of re­turn­ing each year re­mains in­cal­cu­la­ble.

‘To win the Mas­ters and to know you’ll al­ways have a place at the Cham­pi­ons din­ner and in the cham­pi­ons locker room, in many ways it gets bet­ter as the years pass along,’ he says.

olazabal went to Au­gusta in 1994 as one of the favourites after fin­ish­ing se­cond in New or­leans the pre­vi­ous week. Run­ner-up at the 1991 edi­tion to ian Woos­nam, he had learned at Seve’s right hand.

‘i prac­tised with Seve a lot and watched the time he would spend on and around the greens,’ he says. ‘i ab­sorbed the small de­tails. Seve helped me a lot in re­al­is­ing the course ac­tu­ally suited my game.

‘After los­ing to Woosie in 1991, i met Ser­gio (gomez, still his man­ager) in front of the club­house and he was sad. i told him there was noth­ing to be sad about. it was the day i knew i could win.’

Three years on, how­ever, he was far from con­fi­dent after tak­ing a one-stroke lead over Tom Lehman into the fi­nal round.

giv­ing a bril­liant in­sight into what it’s like to be in front with 18 holes to play at Au­gusta, he re­calls: ‘That night was so tough. i went to bed and i hardly slept.

‘i was vi­su­al­is­ing win­ning the Mas­ters. i went through ev­ery hole and pic­tured ev­ery shot. i played out the dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios.

‘What would hap­pen if i started well? What would i do if i strug­gled? i tried to have break­fast and i couldn’t eat.

‘As the hours passed, Ser­gio and i sat on the bench in front of the club­house, next to the locker room. And some­thing hap­pened. From that area, you could see the first tee and the peo­ple tee­ing off.

‘We didn’t say much. We just watched. Tom Wat­son drove off and i said to Ser­gio, “do you know, i don’t think it gets any bet­ter than this”. We stayed for an­other 20 min­utes with­out ex­chang­ing a word. Then i went to work.’

THE cru­cial hole was the 15th, the treach­er­ous beauty that did for Seve in 1986, where he found the wa­ter. olazabal al­most suf­fered the same fate but his ball stayed on the green by a whisker. He holed the 30ft ea­gle putt on his way to a two-stroke suc­cess over Lehman. He had 31 one-putts that week — and two chip-ins.

‘That’s a crazy to­tal on those greens, isn’t it?’ he says, laugh­ing. ‘it was the best putting week of my life. it was strange af­ter­wards, though. i re­mem­ber think­ing it would be an ut­ter joy to win my first ma­jor but i looked at the sun

set­ting in the val­ley be­low the 18th and all i felt was re­lief. i guess i didn’t re­alise how big it was to win the Mas­ters. i was over­come.’

olazabal was a dif­fer­ent man in 1999, con­sumed with grat­i­tude after fear­ing his ca­reer was over.

‘i’ll never for­get that drive down Mag­no­lia Lane,’ he says. ‘Ser­gio was driv­ing, and i said to him to slow down and take it easy, there was no rush. i put the win­dow down and took some deep breaths. it was a truly spe­cial moment.’

The idea there would be any spe­cial mo­ments on the course, how­ever, ap­peared fan­ci­ful.

The pre­vi­ous week in At­lanta, he missed the cut by miles. ‘i can’t keep my drives on the planet,’ he wailed at the time.

Then he ran into gary Player in the Cham­pi­ons locker room. ‘He asked how my game was and i told him i was driv­ing like a dog,’ says olazabal. ‘All of a sud­den he put me against a locker, hand on my

‘There were tears of joy. That’s why, if I had to choose, the 1999 vic­tory was the one I en­joyed most’

chest, looked straight in to my eyes with that really deep look of his, and said: “You have to be­lieve in your­self. Prom­ise me, no mat­ter how bad your driv­ing is, you will be­lieve in your­self”.

‘It was one of those mo­ments where you say to your­self af­ter­wards, “Wow. What just hap­pened there?”’

The trans­for­ma­tion was so re­mark­able that olazabal led Greg nor­man by a stroke go­ing in to the fi­nal day, but this time there was no rest­less­ness.

‘I slept very well that night,’ he says. ‘I was savour­ing it all.’

Two strokes ahead on the 18th, olazabal had tears in his eyes walk­ing up the steep fair­way.

‘I was pic­tur­ing those two years when I barely left the house, the pain and all the sad­ness felt by my fam­ily,’ he says.

‘The press con­fer­ence after was tough, es­pe­cially one ques­tion where ev­ery­thing went through my head in about two sec­onds and I started cry­ing. But there were tears of joy in there as well. That’s why, if I had to choose out of the two, the 1999 Mas­ters vic­tory was the one I en­joyed the most.’

In olazabal’s home, just out­side san se­bas­tian in north­ern spain, there are few traces of his time as a world-class golfer. only in the back of the house in a small al­cove. There you will find his two Mas­ters tro­phies, hand­somely mounted.

In quiet mo­ments, even now, he will stand in front of them and mar­vel at what they rep­re­sent.

‘Those mo­ments, they are over­whelm­ing,’ he says. ‘I stand there, look­ing at them, think­ing back, know­ing how tough it was to get them. I’m not one of those play­ers who keeps golf balls, gloves and clubs. But those tro­phies, they’re pretty much it and, well, they’re dif­fer­ent.

‘I don’t say this very of­ten, but I’m proud of what I did.’

REUTERS GETTY IM­AGES

Dou­ble up: Olazabal with Mark O’Meara in 1999 V for vic­tory: Olazabal en­joys his Mas­ters win in 1994

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