Golf: Tour bows to feat of Olazabal

Spaniard returns from the wilderness to roll in the putts and roll back the years as a stunning 65 earns tributes
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The Independent Online
Whatever he thought was wrong with his golf swing, the way he swung his right leg at the sand on the 10th hole suggested his foot was fine. This was the Jose Maria Olazabal we know and love. He never was satisfied with anything less than perfection and, on the course at least, nothing has changed.

It was the third time in three rounds that Olazabal had found the bunker in front of that green. Twice he had seen his recovery slip past the hole and this time he wanted to stop the ball short. "I still put it past the hole but, no, I was not annoyed," Ollie said.

That did not stop the surface of the hazard being rearranged by the outside agency of the Spaniard's much-talked about foot. Genius being what it is, though, Olazabal got his birdie by holing the nine-footer back. At the next, a par-three, he hit a 7-iron to six feet and holed that, sank a 10-foot par-saver at the 12th and got up and down for another birdie at 13.

Together with the trio of birdies with which he began, this was turning into something of a special round. At the 18th, where the eight had halted him on Friday, he refused to be cowed into laying up and went for the green with a 3-wood. "It only just made it over the water, but you take the chance when you are young and reckless," he said. A birdie-four gave him a seven- under-par 65. At eight under, he was then one behind the leaders as the final groups came to the ninth and saw the Olazabal name on the giant leaderboard.

"I had a chuckle to myself," said Greg Norman, who himself was feeling the juices flowing back in his game. "Once a competitor, always a competitor. It's like riding a bike, you don't forget."

Colin Montgomerie said: "Ollie's 65 is great. He wasn't coming here to test his foot or make up the numbers. He was here to play golf. He's hardly stale, is he? He is as competitive as they get. He won't stay 225th in the world for long."

Ian Woosnam added: "You could see how hard he was working. He's feeling fit and walking well. He's out here to win." The Welshman, thanks to being four under for the last four holes, held the lead going into today's final round of the Dubai Desert Classic at 13 under, with Bernhard Langer and the Australian Richard Green a shot behind and Montgomerie two adrift. Norman was among those three back.

Olazabal's last victory came at the World Series in August 1994, just over a year before he was forced out of the game with what was thought to be rheumatoid arthritis but has now been seemingly successfully treated as a hernia problem. Winning, if you believe the former Masters champion, is the last thing on his mind.

"I made it clear that I was here to test myself on the course physically and the rest is a bonus," he said. "A 65 is a great round, I didn't expect it for sure, and I am very happy. But I have always said that I need some more time to have the confidence that the problems with my feet are over.

"Physically, I feel okay and my feet are no worse. But I have only been practising for three weeks after 18 months off and I still have work to do on my swing. When the pressure is there, that is when it takes its toll and I think I need a few more tournaments to feel I can win."

If Olazabal suffers no reaction after a week off, he will probably play back-to-back in the Portuguese Open and the Turespana Masters, but he has not entered any more tournaments except the major championships.

Meanwhile, there are enough major winners, plus Monty, present on the leaderboard to suggest the winner today will have to shoot the sort of low scores that a gloriously sunny and breathless day produced yesterday. Carl Suneson, part English, Swedish and Spanish, shot a 64, but the leaders took their time to get going.

Montgomerie, at the top of an honours board here which also includes Seve Ballesteros (former vintage), Ernie Els and Fred Couples, went ahead with his fourth birdie at the 13th, but missed chances at each of the last three holes. "That was disappointing, especially playing with Woosie," Monty said.

Woosnam's only deviation from par early on came from a two-putt birdie at the third. The putts just were not falling, so he tweaked the radar on his approaches. His 5-iron at the short 15th finished 12 inches away and his wedge shot from 110 yards at the 17th took one bounce and jumped into the hole for an eagle two.

Having enjoyed St David's Day, Woosnam can celebrate his 39th birthday with a victory which would not only give him a jump on Montgomerie on the money list, but would also go a long way towards ensuring his automatic qualification for the Ryder Cup team.

The form of the Welshman, the German and the returning Spaniard has not escaped Montgomerie's attention with a date in September in mind. "The team is looking a lot stronger than it did three weeks ago, and we are going to need our strongest team."

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