Golf: US Masters: Spain's main chance: Olazabal makes quick advances to fly the flag for the European challenge as he sets out in pursuit of Mize

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The Independent Online
A MAGNIFICENTLY composed third round of 69 - three under par - has given Jose Maria Olazabal an outstanding chance of winning his first US Masters today. His 54- hole total of 210 leaves him, at six under par, just one shot behind Tom Lehman, who emulated Olazabal by shooting a 69.

They were the only players to break 70 on a day beset by capricious winds. 'I am feeling fine and I shall try to play in a relaxed mood in the final round,' Olazabal said last night. 'I learned three years ago to be patient and not to be greedy.' (In 1991, he bogeyed the last hole to lose by a shot to Ian Woosnam.)

Behind Olazabal, a few notable names are lurking. Larry Mize, the 1987 champion, is a shot further back after a round that mixed four birdies with as many bogeys. His most flamboyant birdie came at the 12th, where he holed a bunker shot for a two. Tom Kite is on four under par, Tom Watson is at two under, and Greg Norman and Ray Floyd are among those at one under.

The leader is a 35-year old journeyman pro from Arizona. Yesterday, Lehman was commendably unfazed at being allocated the potentially intimidating assignment of keeping Norman company. He birdied the second and seventh holes to reach the turn in 34, but a bogey at the 12th suggested a reversal of his momentum. Not a bit of it. He birdied both par-fives on the back nine to assume the lead at seven under par, and when a merely adequate tee shot at the short 16th left him in unmistakeably three- putt territory, he defied the odds by sinking his first effort for a two.

He should have gone to nine under when an immaculately-judged pitch to the 17th finished three feet from the stick, but that putt went begging, as did one from four feet for his par at the last. Lehman has not won in 12 years as a pro. This would be a romantic place to open his account, if an unlikely one. But then no one gave Mize much of a chance when he went into a play-off with Norman and Ballesteros here in 1987.

Today will give Olazabal the chance to win this Masters for Spain. When the 28-year- old made a birdie four from seven yards at the second yesterday, he moved into a five-way tie for the lead. At the next par- five, the eighth, he struck a three-iron 217 yards to within six feet and rolled that putt home for an eagle three. That elevated him to six under par and into a share of first place with Lehman.

When he struck an imperious six-iron stiff to the flag for a birdie three at the 10th, he was seven under par and had outright possession of the lead. Having squandered good chances for birdies at both the 11th and 12th, Olazabal pulled his second shot to the par-five 13th into the creek and made six. He steadied himself after that, making three consecutive knee-tremblers from the 15th to save par.

Last month, Olazabal ended a two-year winless drought, and he entered the new season declaring that he had purged from his mind the agony he felt after that loss in 1991. He has won 18 professional titles around the world but so far he has failed to live up to the expectations of himself and others by capturing a major championship.

Olazabal is effectively the sole survivor of a hugely depleted European challenge for a title that its golfers have won in five of the past six years. If that sequence is to be extended, the responsibility now lies firmly in the hands of Olazabal's much- maligned weak left-hand grip.

Still, it would be hard to denigrate his technique on the basis of his play so far this week, over an Augusta National course that by common consent has played its toughest in years. The pin positions have been remorselessly demanding and the breezes invariably fluctuating.

It was certainly too much for Greg Norman yesterday. At four under par entering the third round, he was just a stroke from the lead and in an excellent position to justify his pre-tournament status of favourite.

Unusually, since he is chiefly renowned for the excitement that his prodigious game can generate, Norman started in the most conservative fashion imaginable yesterday, with five straight pars. If that was disappointing for him, though, what soon followed was comparatively devastating. A series of mediocre shots cost him bogeys at three of the next four holes.

You could call it four from four. The eighth, an uphill par five of 535 yards, which is generally out of range for anyone who is not called John Daly, was playing with the help of a generous tailwind and just about everybody was getting on in two with an iron. Norman cut his second shot to the right and made five.

After that, his game was par for the course again - 10 of them in a row, to be precise. At one under par, he is six shots off the pace. Bernhard Langer has not been able to mount a particularly spirited defence of his title. Starting at four over par yesterday, he had moved to two over after eight holes, but he could not sustain his recovery and shot a level-par 72, leaving him on 220.

Another of Europe's golfing glitterati, Seve Ballesteros, was celebrating his birthday, but it was an occasion for tea and sympathy rather than champagne. He turned 37 yesterday, reached the turn in 40, probably felt 50, and eventually wound up with a 75 for 221. All week, his short game has been asked more questions than a Mastermind contestant, and mostly it has supplied the right answers. But his long game has put him in many awkward spots, and no one can make one-putt pars forever. After the high point of his opening round of 70, it has turned into a low week for him.

(Photograph omitted)