Golf: Olazabal lightens step and takes giant strides once more

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The Independent Online
Intense, passionate, dedicated are all adjectives to describe Jose Maria Olazabal's approach to golf.

After 18 months out of the game with a foot injury, perspective can now be added to the list. Andy Farrell finds a relaxed Spaniard looking forward to the start of a new season next week.

There have been times when Jose Maria Olazabal has not always looked like he was enjoying himself on the golf course. These would be the days that reporters awaiting the Spaniard at the recorder's hut could expect to get more out of Nick Faldo in monosyllabic mode.

While Olazabal has the hands of an artist, and Faldo those of a (highly proficient) technician, the pair share one vital quality in the make-up of a champion, that of being a perfectionist.

Olazabal was down in the dumps after losing the 1991 US Masters to Ian Woosnam for so long that it was not until March 1994, after a sharp talking- to from Maite Gomez, the wife of his manager Sergio, that the complex Basque snapped out of it. He was slipping on a Masters Green Jacket only a month later.

But while that season was the highest point of his career, the lowest followed from September 1995 when he had to quit the tour with a foot injury. An initial wrong diagnosis of the condition meant there were times he could not walk during the 18 months he was away from the game.

Such experiences change a person. "It has always been a pleasure to play golf, even though I didn't look like I was enjoying it sometimes," he said. "It has always been a pleasure all my life to play golf, but it gives you a different feeling after what I have been through.

"After you have been 18 months without being able to work, then you start to appreciate the small things in life. Just to wake up, to stand on your feet having no pain, being able to work, play 18 holes and just look up in the air and see blue skies and trees all around you. These are very, very nice things."

Last week Olazabal was in a relaxed mood as he made a fleeting visit to the European Tour's Training School at San Roque. He talked as openly and warmly with the new recruits who will embark on their professional careers this year as he later did with the media.

It was the first time the 31-year-old had returned to the hotel where he stayed as a member of the European team at last September's Ryder Cup. That triumphant week holds special memories for Olazabal, as does his victory in the Canaries Open, which was only his third event after resuming his career. "I cannot put one in front of the other," he said.

"Winning my third tournament was very emotional. On the 18th hole all the memories of those 18 months came to my mind and it is very difficult to explain what you feel. At the Ryder Cup, it was pretty much the same thing because I had to decline the invitation to play two years before. It was a wonderful week, not just for me but for Europe."

Olazabal was so overcome at the victory press conference that he broke down in tears. The memories of that week, he says now, are something "I couldn't put money on".

Money does not figure large in his list of priorities. "Material things don't mean much to me. I have had a chance in my life to have the best cars, the best watches or whatever. But I have never had more than one car, I am always wearing the same watch. Family, I think, is more important.

"I have been lucky in life to have wonderful parents and great friends. To be able to build a house with enough room to bring my parents to live there, that to me is more important than anything else. They have done a lot for me and now I am paying them back. That is what I really enjoy, to see them happy."

The reason for Olazabal's visit to San Roque was twofold. He is working with MacGregor on a new set of blade clubs, although no contract will be signed until he is entirely satisfied. And there was the chance for John Jacobs, the renowned coach who has been the only man Olazabal has ever trusted enough to take advice from, to look over his swing.

The session was positive, although Olazabal knows he needs to work on the takeaway in his swing and his driving before opening the season at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand next week. He has not always journeyed to the Far East at the start of a year, but it has been forced on him by the decline in opportunities to play in Europe prior to the Masters.

Olazabal, who still lives on the San Sebastian golf course where his parents worked, does not enjoy long trips from home. He does not want to go full-time on the US Tour, but feels improvements need to be made at home.

"I strongly believe that we need to improve the facilities and the conditions on the golf courses," he said. "I think that should be the priority and I think it is the priority for the people running the European Tour."