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