Golf: Olazabal and Norman lead superb finale

The Masters: Elite fill leaderboard as friends who supported each other through injury problems go out in last pair
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the best last-day leaderboards to be assembled after 54 holes of a major championship, with 12 major winners and eight of the world's top-10 within six strokes of the lead, set out on the final round yesterday of the 63rd US Masters.

But that was of less concern to the two men in the last pairing than the fact that they were involved at all. Had things gone according to plan, it would have been David Duval and Tiger Woods suffering the long wait until 3pm to tee off at Augusta. This was far more interesting.

Even experienced players have trouble occupying their minds prior to such a late final-round tee time, but Jose Maria Olazabal and Greg Norman showed far more patience during their absences from the game. Norman was out of nine months after he underwent shoulder reconstruction surgery following last year's Masters.

Olazabal missed the 1996 Masters, in which Norman experienced another harrowing defeat at Augusta by losing a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo. At the time the 33-year-old Spaniard could not walk, although later that summer a German doctor diagnosed a back problem rather than the rheumatoid arthritis in his feet he was being treated for.

Returning after 18 months out of the game, Ollie achieved an emotional victory in Spain two years ago and last year won the Dubai Classic. But yesterday was the first time the 1994 Masters champion was again in contention for a major title.

"This is the first time I have put myself in this situation since my return and it feels great," Olazabal said. "Just giving myself a chance to win the tournament is great."

Olazabal's record here is impressive, only once finishing outside the top-14 since 1989. His career stroke average is on a par with that of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Fred Couples. The first time he had a chance to win was in 1991, when he bogeyed the last to lose to Ian Woosnam. He went into a prolonged form of the sulks for almost three years, only snapping out of it prior to beating Tom Lehman five years ago.

"Before I may have had a different attitude," he said. "Now I appreciate it all a little more. On Saturday, as we were coming up 17 and 18, I told my caddie to enjoy the moment because it does not happen very often. With all the people standing, it was really nice, very emotional."

Despite a 73 on Saturday, including only one birdie at the 15th and a ton of missed chances, Olazabal retained his lead, with Norman one stroke behind. The pair have a mutual respect and appreciate what each has gone through.

"Greg was always in touch when I was having my problems," Ollie said. "He wanted to know what was going on. And last year, we played a practice round here and I had no idea he was about to have surgery, so when I heard I tried to do exactly the same thing. We have gone through a similar situation and it is not very nice but maybe it made us a bit closer.

"I was watching in '96 on TV and I felt sorry for Greg. You don't want anyone to go through that. He has been very close to winning this tournament."

Norman said: "Jose and I have been friends from way back playing on the European tour. When he was going through a hard time with his foot injury, I made a point of staying in touch and giving him support and he did the same for me. He was one of the few players who called or dropped a note.

"When you are out of the game for a period of time, you're wondering if you will ever get back into it. You wonder if the surgery was good enough to allow you to get back to the level you used to play at. We are both as proud as punch to be back playing the game the way we know we can play it."

Prior to his surgery last year, Norman personally invited the Spaniard to his own Greg Norman Holden Invitational in Sydney and the pair played in the final group before the host beat his guest by two strokes. Norman birdied the last hole on Saturday to make sure of playing in yesterday's final pairing. But earlier it seemed Augusta was trying to test the Great White Shark one more time.

It was at the 12th where Steve Pate, who also missed a year's golf with a broken wrist after first a car accident and then being knocked off his bike by a deer, equalled the Masters record of six birdies in a row before going on to set the new mark of seven at the 13th. But everyone else seemed to find the par three at its most devilish.

Especially the player hitting on the tee first, as Norman was when he sent his eight-iron 20 yards over the green into the bushes.

After a frantic search, Norman had to go back to the tee, hit the same club on to the green and then holed from 30 feet for no more than a bogey four. Having seen Norman graciously accept his past misfortunes over 18 years at Augusta, the 44-year-old Australian has become the sentimental favourite with the gallery.

"When I was walking back to the tee," Norman said, "it seemed there was not a single individual who did not want me to hit the green. You could actually feel the emotion coming out of them. The same on 13, 15 and 16. I've had some good support at the British Open and in Australia, but that's the most I've ever felt here in the United States."

In early action yesterday, the South African amateur Trevor Immelman, so impressive with his 72 in the opening round, showed how tricky conditions were. Playing in the first group along with Bob Tway, the 19-year-old had two bogeys and two double bogeys in his first four holes. Tway had a pair of bogeys himself.

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