Golf: Day of triumph for Olazabal

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The Independent Online
Jose Maria Olazabal capped his magnificent comeback yesterday when he won the Turespana Masters at Maspalomas here.

The Spaniard was playing only his third tournament since being forced to take an 18-month break because of rheumatoid arthritis in his feet, and he continued on a remarkable upward curve. On his return four weeks ago he finished joint 12th in the Dubai Desert Classic, then was joint fourth in the Portuguese Open and now has gained his 16th victory on the European Tour. Olazabal's return to such fine form in such a short time will give Europe's Ryder Cup hopes a tremendous boost.

Yesterday, he started two shots behind the Englishman Lee Westwood and the Argentinian Jose Coceres, but shot a six-under-par 67 for a 20 under par aggregate of 272 to beat Westwood, who shot 71, by two shots. Another Englishman, Paul Broadhurst, and another Argentinian, Eduardo Romero, finished joint third on 276, with David Gilford and Coceres, who had three bogeys in his last six holes, taking joint fifth place on 277.

Olazabal came to the last with two shots in hand over Westwood. "When Lee did not hit the green with his approach shot I had three putts to win, and at that point the memories came pouring back. Thoughts flashed through my mind of the time when I thought I might never play again, and though I knew that I was going to win when I stood on the last green it was a very special moment for me.

"It is so difficult to take it all in. I never thought I would win so soon. I thought I would need far more time to get back to the level I want to reach. It has been a real surprise."

Olazabal's previous victory on the European Tour came in the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth in May 1994. He played well that year, winning the US Masters and two other tournaments. But then he struggled with his foot problems throughout 1995 and played in only eight European events that year.

His last appearance before rejoining the Tour in Dubai had been in the Lancome Trophy in Paris in September 1995, when he finished joint 26th having managed only a one-over-par aggregate of 281. Then came the bleak 18 months.

"My worst moments were from April to September last year when I really thought I would never play top-class golf again because my feet were not getting better," Olazabal said. "But then I saw a German doctor, Hans Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, and since then things have looked much better. I am still not 100 per cent but I'm getting there."

Olazabal's victory, which won him pounds 61,964.63, has taken him to 20th in the Ryder Cup points table, and if he can continue in this rich vein of form he will sail into the European team. Not that he is quite satisfied yet. He says his driving must improve considerably and yesterday he used his one-iron frequently off the tee.

"I play in the US Masters in three weeks' time, and I know that I will have to hit my driver there and at other tournaments like the British Open," he said.

He always looked likely to be the winner yesterday once he overtook Westwood and caught Coceres at the fourth hole. He birdied the second and fourth and had two more birdies at the sixth and seventh, which took him out in 32 and into a two-shot lead over his two playing partners. He had another birdie at the 11th, and from there he cruised home with six successive pars and a birdie four at the last.

Westwood, who is going to Argentina for his next tournament on Wednesday, hit his second shot into a tree at the fourth and had to take a penalty. He birdied the seventh but could still only reach the turn in 36. He dropped another shot at the 10th but then showed his mettle with three birdies in the last eight holes to take second place outright.

Westwood was generous in defeat. "It's nice to lose against such a good player," he said. "He had to win again some day, and it's good he won in Spain. As for me, I collected 41,000 points towards the Ryder Cup, so I'm happy."

Coceres faded away at the finish, and it was Broadhurst, with a 68, and Romero, with a 69, who came through to claim joint third place on 276. Broadhurst has moved up to seventh in the Ryder Cup points table, and Westwood to 11th.