Golf: Olazabal no longer a minor in the pursuit of majors: John Hopkins on the Spanish golfer aiming to put history behind him in this week's US Masters

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The Independent Online
JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL seems to have everything: the looks of a nobleman, the dignity of a priest, the wealth of a prince. All this and he is only just 27.

What the Spaniard has not got is what he wants more than any of the above - victory in one of golf's four annual major championships. He is not just the best player in the world under the age of 30 who has not won a 'major'. Now that Nick Price holds the US PGA title, Olazabal, ranked eighth in the world, is the best player bar none without one.

Two years ago Olazabal threw away his best chance of victory. It was the fourth round of the 1991 US Masters and on the par-four 72nd hole Olazabal took a five and lost to Ian Woosnam by one stroke. It was one of the worst moments of his life and plunged him into a spin from which he took months to recover.

Those were dark days for Olazabal and Sergio Gomez, his manager and friend. 'At the table he was like a piece of rock, a chunk of cork, silent, sullen, still,' Gomez said last week. 'He was mute. Last year it was still affecting him but this year he has got over it. He knows he had his chance, but he believes what happened then is all over. He has no back thoughts. It was a tournament he wanted to win, but he knows it will not be the only chance he has to do so. He has recovered. At the table now he is excellent company.'

The Olazabal who emerged in the United States the week before last was indeed slightly different. He remained the gracious and articulate young man he had always been, a man who could and often did rage long and hard at himself if a shot was less than perfection. In this he was, perhaps, being true to his birthplace on Spain's Basque coast.

'Although Basques are reserved in most things, they show their feelings of rage, disgust, resentment and shame when they fail in a stroke,' wrote the novelist V S Pritchett. Actually, he was referring to them playing pelota, but it applies to Olazabal at golf just as easily.

But now there appears to be a new element in his conversation, an element of defensiveness. 'I have had far more success than I dreamed of. I might never play as well again,' he said.

If any further confirmation was needed that the 1993 'Chema' (the Spanish diminutive for Jose Maria) is unlike the one we saw last season, then it came in New Orleans last week. This Jose Maria was able to laugh about what had hitherto been a tender point, namely the 1991 Masters. 'At press conferences I get asked again and again about the 1991 US Masters,' he said. 'I think it shows the journalists have poor imagination if that is all they can ask me. They have asked it of me so often it no longer affects me.'

Olazabal's strengths have traditionally been his accuracy and a breathtaking short game. His weakness has been off the tee. It was a bad drive that cost him the Masters two years ago. It was bad driving that cost him the lead in the Players' Championship in 1992 and bad driving made him miss the cut by nine strokes the week before last and go close to doing so again after an opening 78 at New Orleans on Thursday.

Olazabal's technique is distinctive, from its very weak grip to its lightning-fast swing. Nick Faldo is the best, though not the only player who believes that Olazabal needs to change it if he is to continue to improve.

'I like Olly. We get on really well and I want to make it clear I am saying this in a spirit of friendship not criticism,' the Open champion and twice Masters winner said. 'But he has a technique that is great at 25 but will cause him to wake up at 30 and realise he has been hammering his body. He needs to strengthen his grip to take the pressure off his arms, shoulders and back.'

Advice is not always received in the spirit in which it is intended. Olazabal has bridled in the past at suggestions that he ought to strengthen his grip. But as to the speed of his swing, perhaps that message is getting through. 'His swing tempo was so fast last year it put him under great pressure,' Faldo said. 'I saw him at the end of the year and I thought to myself 'slow it down'. I saw him today across a fairway and I thought 'that was better'. It was much slower.'

There was encouragement, too, for Olazabal from Tony Jacklin, his former Ryder Cup captain. 'One thing about being down for so long is that you can bounce back up to incredible highs. Olly is a great player. He will bounce back. He could even win this week.'

(Photograph omitted)