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Golf: Olazabal takes the slow route

Even a Spanish master finds the atmosphere at the MacGregor Training Week in Spain conducive to the development of new skills.
ABOUT THE only remaining person in golf who believes the sport should have an off-season longer than the two-week Christmas and New Year break is Jose Maria Olazabal. It is hard to prise the Spaniard away from his San Sebastian home in the Basque country at this time of year and it is hardly a surprise that he has not joined the lemming-like rush down to South Africa for the start of the 1999 European Tour on Thursday.

Olazabal's season will not get under way until the Dubai Classic next month,where he will be the defending champion, but he did get on a plane last week. It was only an internal flight down to Malaga, where he popped in on the MacGregor Training Week to see his old coach, John Jacobs.

The veteran swing guru is the only man Olazabal has ever listened to about his own particularly rapid action.

Top of the agenda was his problem driving the ball, one that outside observers find hard to detect but which causes the perfectionist inside Ollie to find a constant source of grief.

"Not being able to hit the driver properly is hard to take because the rest of my game is all right," Olazabal said. "I drove the ball well for four or five weeks early last year when I had some good results and won in Dubai but all of a sudden it deteriorated."

Olazabal was also at San Roque to film a television commercial with another MacGregor player, Darren Clarke. The gist of the conversation was: "I'd like to be able to drive the ball like you, Darren."

"And I'd love to hole as many putts from 15 feet as you, Jose."

One of the other reason why Olazabal thinks the majority of his 1998 season did not live up to a promising start was not having a proper break last winter. "I only had 10 days off before I started practising again to play the early events of the season," he said. "By June and July I was feeling very tired."

The former Masters champion has the option to pick and choose his assignments. He also has the knowledge that he does not have to worry about retaining his player's card or chasing Ryder Cup points, which will come in abundance with a few top finishes.

For those officially invited to the European Tour Training School, the new recruits from the Qualifying School and the Challenge Tour, the same does not apply. Immediately on getting back from Spain on Sunday, John Bickerton was on a plane to Johannesburg for the South African PGA.

Bickerton, who turns 30 later this month, is used to a busy schedule. At one point last season he played 22 consecutive weeks, trying to combine a limited number of appearances on the main circuit with the Challenge Tour, where he managed to secure his card for the real thing. "You have to keep going because you're thinking the next week might be the big one."

He considered pulling out of the British Masters because he was shattered but was persuaded to carry on and finished eighth, his best result on the European Tour. Having lost his card after two seasons in 1996, Bickerton feels more prepared this time.

"I have learnt not to set too many goals," he said. "In the past I found that obstructive because you end up thinking more about the goals than just playing golf."

This was Bickerton's third visit to the MacGregor Week and though the idea is that players do well enough never to return - Vijay Singh became the first graduate to win a major championship at the USPGA last August - Bickerton found it just as valuable as on his first visit. "I would come every year if I was invited," he said. "I cannot believe more players who have the opportunity don't come. If you take away one thing in each aspect of the game, then it is worth it."

By far the biggest draw is Tommy Horton's short game clinics. The unrivalled No 1 on the European Seniors Tour, Horton is showing off new tricks to players who think they know it all. "The great thing about Tommy is that not only does he tell you what do to, but he can show you," said Bickerton. "There is an instant cure, while it takes time to work on things with your swing."

Bickerton finished fourth in the MacGregor Challenge at Valderrama, which was won by Per Nyman with a 65. Jimmy Patino, the club's president, was not present to witness this affront to his praised creation but he was apparently happier that only three of the 20 players broke par.

Jorgen Aker holed a six-iron for an albatross two at the infamous 17th, but the hole was only playing 450 yards and will be converted to a par- four by the time the American Express World Championship is staged at the former Ryder Cup venue in November.

The scientific approach to the game is all very well but things can get out of hand. Mac O'Grady, the eccentric 47-year-old American who ruffled a few feathers when he won his card at the Qualifying School, was not at San Roque, but the word is that he is considering having two inches taken out of his legs. O'Grady has made a thorough study of the physiology of the golf swing and one of the main conclusions of his research is, apparently, that the ideal height for a golfer is 5ft 10in.