Golf: Olazabal closes the gap

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The Independent Online
In The event of Jose Maria Olazabal not securing an automatic place on the European Ryder Cup team in Munich next Sunday, an interesting conversation will take place between the Spaniard and his captain Seve Ballesteros. An early translated transcript is already available:

"Jose, congratulations, you are one of my wild cards."

"Seve, that's very kind but I'm not sure I'm playing well enough."

"Jose, you are one of my wild cards."

"Seve, I'm not quite hitting every shot absolutely perfectly and I just want you to know that."

"Jose, you are one of my wild cards."

"Thank you very much, Seve."

Any alternative script in which Ballesteros says: "That's quite all right, Jose, I'll choose someone else," is preposterous. Olazabal may have only just made the cut at the Smurfit European Open, but yesterday he produced one of the best rounds of a foul-weather day at the K Club.

Olazabal's 67 took him to seven under par. The Spaniard was still 11 behind leader Per- Ulrik Johansson and will need something similar today to elevate himself into the higher cheques. But the round demonstrated that Olazabal is far from playing so badly that he does not deserve a fifth Ryder Cup cap.

"My game is not far away," he said. "It's a pity I could not finish the job." Olazabal went to the turn in 31 with five birdies, for the first time this week his putts finding the hole. He came back in level par, however, failing to take his chances. No one greets pars, and good but not brilliant shots, with such a slouch of despondency.

Long gone is the just-happy-to-be-here attitude of his early comeback. Given that he has only been collecting points since March, as opposed to last September, Olazabal has done well to be on the verge of the team. He is pounds 22,000 behind Padraig Harrington, who is 11th on the qualifying list but in effect in the last automatic place as the injured Miguel Martin will not play.

Harrington, who is only in his second year as a pro and whose shot selection did not always meet with Ballesteros's approval when they played together on the first two days, double- bogeyed the first yesterday and finished with a 72 for three under.

Paul Broadhurst, who was unbeaten in the 1991 match and is one place below Olazabal, moved to six under with a 69. The Englishman, who had missed his four previous cuts, rates himself a "rank outsider" in Ryder Cup terms.

Olazabal has always underplayed his hand. "I need a few good rounds like today and a good tournament next week and that will change the whole picture," he said. "If a player makes the team automatically, he has a right to be there. If you are a pick and you are struggling with your game and don't win matches, it's not a nice situation. That happened at The Belfry last time."

That was in 1993 and the Spaniard has had to be picked for three of his four previous matches. "If Seve said I was on the team, I would talk to him before he makes the decision. If I am not playing well enough and I feel my game is not like it should be, I will mention it to him. If I feel my game is not good enough to play in the Ryder Cup, I might say no. We'll discuss it."

It might be a brief discussion. As Paul Azinger, an old Cup rival of the two Spaniards, said last week: "Seve would rather break the arms of the man in 10th place than not have Olazabal on the team."

Despite the foot problems that kept him out of the team, Olazabal is hopeful of being able to play 36 holes in a day. "Hopefully, I won't have to play all 36 holes," he said with a grin.

Johansson, whose victory here last year came at the expense of Costantino Rocca by a stroke, was briefly joined in the lead by the Italian and Colin Montgomerie, but a round of 66 gave him a four-shot advantage going into the final round. The Swede had to wait until the seventh for the first of his six birdies, the last coming at the 18th.

Rocca, who like Johansson began the week still looking to secure his Ryder Cup place, dropped only one stroke in a 67, the same score as Miguel Angel Jimenez, who was two strokes further back. Montgomerie fell seven behind with a level-par 72. The Scot could only claim two birdies, the first , on the sixth, was immediately followed by a visit to the River Liffey for a bogey six.