Golf: Olazabal's Cup mission

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Ryder Cup captain, Mark James, gets the chance to observe at first-hand some of the leading contenders for places in his team at the Turespana Masters over the Parador Malaga del Golf course this week. The pounds 357,000 tournament has attracted a high-class field, including Darren Clarke, the Order of Merit leader David Howell, and the home trio of Jose Maria Olazabal, Seve Ballesteros and the amateur Sergio Garcia.

James will be particularly keen to check on the progress of Ulsterman Clarke, who has endured an indifferent start to the season. The 30-year- old from Dungannon is still second in the Ryder Cup points table after a strong finish last season but missed the cut in Malaysia and lost in the first round of the Andersen Consulting Matchplay at La Costa to Andrew Magee.

Olazabal fared better, reaching the quarter-finals, and he will be hoping local knowledge can help him climb the Ryder Cup table from 17th position. "I didn't get any consistency off the tee until the quarter-final against John Huston," said the 1994 Masters champion, who won a Spanish Amateur Championship over the Parador course.

"I hit the ball better that day than any time during the week, I hope I can keep that consistency. That's the most positive thing I can take from the week. Now I just need to put it all together. The course is in much better shape than I heard a month ago, the only problem are the bunkers. They have stones and the sand is very soft, which makes it difficult to control the ball."

Worries about the bunkers are common, but the local hero and defending champion, Miguel Angel Jimenez, should have no problems as he chases the pounds 60,000 first prize. The 35-year-old was born and bred in Malaga and will be able to commute the short distance from his house in Benalmadena.

"This will be a fantastic experience," said Jimenez, who won this title last year when it was played at Santa Ponsa. "I live just 10 minutes from the course and I can't wait to defend my title so close to home. My family will be able to come and watch me and it will be nice playing in front of so many local people."

Garcia, the British amateur champion, is also sure to have a large following as the brilliant teenager continues his build-up to next month's US Masters at Augusta. "My game is in quite good shape," he said. "I've been practising the last two days and I've hit the ball quite well. The course set-up is complicated, the greens are hard and difficult to read and you've got to play very, very well all day long if you want to score well."