Golf: Heroes - just for one day

Tim Glover finds that double triumph changes little in Spain
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The Independent Online
IF A SWEDE were to win the Masters he would receive the keys to the City of Stockholm, be short-listed for the Nobel Prize and advance the cause of a game that is already taken ultra seriously in Scandinavia. When Jose Maria Olazabal slipped into the green jacket at Augusta National last Sunday, there may have been rejoicing in the tapas bars of Madrid, but the siesta that is Spanish golf was not interrupted for long.

"It will have no impact," Sergio Gomez, his manager, said. "Jose was the biggest hero since the conquistadors beat the Arabs, but only for a few days. That's the way we are. They remember villains in Spain but not heroes."

This probably irritates Gomez, Sancho Panza to Olazabal's Don Quixote, more than it does the Masters champion. After his second triumph in Georgia, life for Olazabal, who still lives on the San Sebastian course where his grandfather and father were greenkeepers, returned to normal. He enjoyed a lunch with Gomez, visited a course he is remodelling, watched TV and prepared for the Spanish Open near Barcelona this week. It was at the same course, El Prat, in 1986 that Olazabal announced his arrival in the professional game with a victory, having just turned 20.

"If he doesn't win again next week," Gomez said. "The Spanish will think that what he did at the Masters was just an accident." Olazabal knows that Gomez is hardly exaggerating. "When Seve won the British Open, the Spanish media did not show a single picture of him on TV or in the papers," he said.

Maybe this time it will be different. Ballesteros, the elder conquistador, will be in Barcelona, albeit with a dented shield, but more intriguingly Olazabal will be reunited with Sergio Garcia, the brilliant 19-year-old who took the trophy as leading amateur at Augusta. It was Garcia's last conquest in the amateur ranks and he is expected to face Olazabal next week as a fellow professional. Olazabal's view of Garcia, who has an obscene handicap of plus 5.4, is: "He is better than I was at his age. He hits the ball further. The competition he's been facing is much tougher now than 14 years ago."

Like Olazabal, Garcia's amateur career was outstanding, but if anything he is even better prepared. Under the guidance of Jose Marquina, a family friend and Miami-based businessman, Garcia has travelled extensively, competing in 20 countries and winning in 10. When Garcia was 12 he made his first trip to America and won the Palmetto Junior Classic by 13 shots; he won the European Amateur Championship at 15 and, against the pros, took the Catalonia Open in 1997 and was second in the Argentina Open.

About the only time Garcia has been overshadowed was in the Open at Royal Birkdale last year. Opening with a 69, he finished joint 29th. Ordinarily, for an 18-year-old amateur to finish in the top 30 in the Open would be considered a milestone. That week, of course, another teenager, Justin Rose came within a couple of shots of winning the claret jug itself. Rose turned professional and has missed everything but the Friday night flight. It has been a gruesome experience which Garcia - he played in 13 pro events last year and missed one cut - is unlikely to share.

Inevitably, he has been compared to Ballesteros and Olazabal. Their backgrounds are strikingly similar. All were born into the game, the sons of caddies, greenkeepers, club pros, with barely two pesetas to rub together, and all are naturally gifted.

"I would say I'm a little better driver than the other two," Garcia said, which is not an extravagant claim. "With the irons it's difficult to be as good as Jose, maybe impossible. He's the best iron player I've ever seen. With the heart I don't know how anyone can be as good as Seve. Also, you see him doing those little shots. Then you go home and try and try. But maybe only he can do them. I was 14 the first time I played with him. I was so nervous. He was so kind. Playing the game is not hard but playing it with great pros is difficult. To try as hard mentally as they do, as a matter of honour."

When Olazabal won the Masters in 1994, Seve (the green jacket model in 1980 and 1983) left a note of encouragement in his locker on the morning of the final round. Last Sunday there was no note from Seve - he had left Augusta after missing the cut - but there were messages from other Europeans, including Garcia. After the amateur champion had gone round in 73, on a day when nobody broke 70, to finish joint 38th with an aggregate of 295, Olazabal compiled a masterly 71 for a total of 280, two better than the runner-up Davis Love and three better than Greg Norman.

Although Olazabal had made a full recovery from the condition that prevented him from walking, let alone playing, for two seasons from 1995, he had done little to suggest he was about to be reunited with the jacket he won five years earlier.

For a club that prides itself on not getting an azalea petal out of place, they had still not corrected the mis-spelling of the Spaniard's name, stitched above the inside pocket: Olazabel. Anyway, how could a man who had finished 66th in the Turespana Masters the previous month be ready for the Masters?

"Before it started I thought he had no chance," Gomez said: "He was not playing at all well. His putting was lovely but from tee to green he was all over the place. In the build-up to the Masters they talked about virtually everybody but Jose. He said to me, `The worst thing I can do is not win this thing. There's no pressure on me. Nobody expects anything from me'. Jesus, suddenly I saw a new guy and a new approach. He was in command."

A pep talk from Gary Player also helped to transform Olazabal who, in an act that is becoming a custom, gave Norman a hug on the 18th green. When the Australian was out of action following a shoulder operation, Olazabal had sympathised. Similarly, after winning at Augusta in 1994, he had written a letter to Paul Azinger who was then fighting cancer. On his return home, Olazabal found a huge bouquet of flowers with a note from Azinger.

In the European prize money list, Seve has passed the pounds 5m mark and is just ahead of Olazabal. How long will it be before they're leaving messages in Garcia's locker? Olazabal used to say: "I'm not the second Seve, I'm the first Jose Maria Olazabal." Now he says: "Sergio will not be the second Olazabal. He will be the first Sergio Garcia."