Olazabal fuels the Ryder rumour mill

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The Independent Online

Jose Maria Olazabal is far too decent and humble a person to be trying to make life hard for others. That, however, may be the consequence of a spectacular return to form confirmed by the Spaniard's victory in the Buick Invitational in San Diego last week.

As he sat on the end of his bag waiting for the later finishers to complete their final rounds last Sunday (J L Lewis, needing a birdie at the last for victory, took a bogey to hand Olazabal the win), he was probably not contemplating the fact that he would have an easier draw at this week's Accenture World Matchplay at La Costa.

Now ranked 28th in the world, the win means Olazabal will avoid a meeting with one of the highest seeds in Wednesday's opening round. But with a helping hand from fate, the Spaniard is likely to face Justin Leonard, his nemesis from the Ryder Cup at Brookline if Colin Montgomerie passes a fitness test on his back before tomorrow's official draw.

If Olazabal, in the aftermath of his sixth win on US soil, is unlikely to have turned his thoughts to the Ryder Cup, it did not stop others doing it for him. There has been a suggestion circling that two extra wild cards should be nominated for both the Americans and the Europeans for this September's postponed match at The Belfry.

This week the names of Olazabal and John Daly, who recorded his second top-four finish within a month at the Buick, were presented as possible recipients, but throughout the season there will be others. The issue has the potential to build over the year and may be a cause of harassment to officials who took decisions in good faith in response to a unique set of circumstances last September. With the teams remaining as selected for last year's match, and the next match not until 2004, a three-year gap has been created in qualifying terms, a disappointment for the emerging youngsters but more so for those at a more time-sensitive stage of their careers, such as the 36-year-old Olazabal.

Sam Torrance's most acute problem last September was fitting Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik and Olazabal into two wild cards. Over the years Olazabal's inconsistent form has meant he has had to rely on being picked more than others but who could think of leaving him out? He rarely lets Europe down, although in 1999 he had to excuse himself from the foursomes and then saw a healthy lead evaporate in the crucial singles at Brookline against Leonard.

It was perhaps that week that persuaded the often obstinate Basque – where his swing is concerned – to find a cure to his wayward driving and during the 2000 season he approached Butch Harmon for help. Though he won the French Open in May last year, his season never got going and though he was hitting more fairways, he was missing putts for the first time. Though Parnevik was hardly burning it up, Torrance chose the Swede over the Spaniard and at the time few could argue.

Though respecting the decision, Olazabal was bitterly disappointed and in true Hollywood style vowed: "I'll be back." Not being able to see Harmon while competing in Europe, Olazabal had a session with Pete Cowen at the Volvo Masters in November and the rewards came a few weeks later at two events in Asia that got the 2002 European Order of Merit under way. He was second at the BMW Asian Open and then won the Omega Hong Kong Open by birdieing the last three holes.

Returning to the West Coast swing of the US Tour, where he toiled without success last year, Olazabal spent a week with Harmon in Las Vegas. Having made the cut on the mark at the Torrey Pines, Ollie scored 67 and 65 over the weekend, sealing the win with a glorious pitch from 94 yards at the last which almost spun back into the hole. All this on a course extended to over 7,500 yards, requiring long and straight driving, and redesigned with the 2008 US Open in mind.

"I have put in a lot of work on my swing," Olazabal said. "You know that in this game you have to go backward to go forward and that's what happened last year. My goal is to get my swing better and more consistent, so I can trust it under pressure. That will be the first step, to give myself more chances to win." History suggests when Olazabal has a chance to win, he rarely fails to take it.