Olazabal's driving lessons pass the Belfry test

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Jose Maria Olazabal woke up on Sunday morning he was intent on being aggressive. To catch Padraig Harrington, the leader by five strokes in the Benson and Hedges International, he needed to be. He rated his chances of victory at the time as "slim". After Harrington was disqualified for not signing his first-round scorecard, the gameplan changed, tied as he was for the lead with Phil Price.

It did not necessarily get any easier. "We all know it is tougher when you are leading," Olazabal said. "When you are coming out of the pack there is not so much pressure."

The one thing Harrington hoped for, before departing The Belfry, was for one of the new leaders to score low. Ollie's 66 would have forced the Irishman to have shot a 70 at worst. Rather than charging, the 34-year-old Spaniard was involved in a cagey duel with Price.

For much of the day, the Welshman stuck with the double Masters champion. At the par-five 17th, he hit a driver for his second shot close to the hole. It forced Olazabal to respond with a magnificent one-iron. First to putt, Ollie holed for an eagle, Price missed. "It was classic matchplay," said Price, a runner-up for the third time this year.

Harrington knows all about near-misses. He had a run of seven second-place finishes before claiming his second Tour win in Brazil last month. After a fine Ryder Cup debut last year, the 28-year-old from Dublin is evolving into one of the continent's best players. He has learnt his lessons well and will do so again with a crucial error last Thursday when he handed in a scorecard with two signatures on it - those of his playing partners Jamie Spence and Michael Campbell - but not his own.

As one of the few major sports which relies on the players policing themselves, there needs to be a strong deterrent for those tempted to wilfully abuse the tiny ratio of referees to competitors. Rule 6-6b requires a signature of the player to attest to his score and the penalty for a breach is nothing less than disqualification. Such a severe penalty occasionally catches the careless.

Harrington accepted his fate with dignity. "If I didn't know I was meant to sign my card, I would say it is a daft rule. But the fact is I have been doing this since I was 12 years old and it's the first time I have ever failed to sign it. If you do away with this rule, at what stage do you stop doing away with other rules? I wouldn't have wanted to win and then find out six months later. You want to win the right way."

Andy McFee, the Tour's Senior Referee, could remember only one other case where he had to apply such a heavy sanction, at the Qualifying School upon a player who thought he had just earned his card by holing a putt on the final green.

"This goes to the core of the game," McFee said. "We all know golf is not played under the constant gaze of the referee and it is relatively easy to do things out there that aren't correct.

"But the one thing all players, at whatever level, have to do is put their mark - a signature, name or nickname - on a card that says to the world that is exactly what they did and that is the score they want their fellow competitors to play against. That is a core principle and if they don't the penalty is disqualification."

Unfortunately the problem only came to light when The Belfry requested the scorecards to later frame and display in the hotel. That included the card of Harrington's 64 on Saturday, which may still stand as the course record.

The revamped Brabazon course is now a strong test and Olazabal would not have won without a huge amount of work on his notoriously indifferent driving. Lee Westwood, who complained of a lack of motivation in practising during the week, may care to mark the Spaniard's words.

"There are no secrets," Ollie said. "You have to practice and practice. It has been a long trip and a tough one. I have struggled since winning the Masters last year and there have been times when I have been really down. But I kept working - it is all you can do. I despaired as the months went by and I could see no results. It hurts when you cannot hit the shots you are capable of hitting."

A new grip and turning, rather than sliding, through the ball were the keys. Olazabal, like Price and Harrington, will be aiming to be back at The Belfry in September next year when the Ryder Cup returns. As an inland, parkland course there is no inherent advantage for the home side over the Americans - it is the sort of course they play on every week - but Olazabal said: "The more you play a course, the better. You know how to attack the pins and it makes you feel comfortable."

Comments