Master hit by false dawns

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HAD everything gone to plan, Jose Maria Olazabal would have risen early this morning at the Tanah Merah country club ready to play the final round of his comeback tournament on the European Tour. And pick up his first cheque. The personal anguish of 1995 could finally have been buried.

His mind's eye had long pictured Singapore and the Johnnie Walker Classic as the place where he would resume a career abandoned in Paris on a fateful day last September when he faced up to the reality that his right foot would not heal itself and reluctantly turned his back on the Tour and Europe's Ryder Cup team.

Olazabal will not see the sun rise over Asia this morning, but rather through a window of the same family home in Spain where he watched the glorious drama of the Ryder Cup unfold on teletext. While an earlier operation to shorten the big toe cured one source of discomfort, the tumour pressing against the nerve between his second and third toes continues to torment.

Neither will he appear at the Heineken Classic on Thursday in Perth, Australia. In fact, the Dubai Desert Classic as far away as 14 March has now been targeted for his comeback. For a man who lives to play golf, the nightmare goes on. It is made worse because he can swing and hit balls without appreciable pain, but he cannot walk.

His victory in the US Masters 21 months ago opened the way to a glittering future; now the 29-year-old is at rock bottom. He reads books, watches videos and listens to music. He talks of playing again rather than winning, of walking rather than running, but mostly of the fear of stepping into the tournament spotlight.

"My only ambition is to feel good in my shoes again," he said. "Technically I feel I am good enough to come back. My hands respond to my head and the ball flies more or less the way I want. My big fear, the major question mark, is whether my body and my feet will physically hold under the pressure and distress..

"The last year has been a complete disaster, the worst of my life. With an injury you at least have an idea when it will end. But with this illness or disease, or whatever you want to call it, I can only keep hope. I can't stand the uncertainty. I had intended to come back last October. I am still not ready."

One of the consequences of his condition is that the foot tends to flare up if he gets a dose of influenza, or even toothache. To say it is getting on his nerves is wholly accurate. "I seem to have no control over the recovery process and I admit I am worried that I could be forced to retire," he said.

The loss of Olazabal from the European scene would be colossal. There is arguably no greater talent than his playing the Tour. Nick Faldo is in America and Severiano Ballesteros is at present in self-imposed exile. Although Colin Montgomerie is Europe's No1, he has not won a Major and he remembers well that Olazabal defeated him 5 and 4 in the final of the 1984 amateur championship.

Indeed, in his formative years, Olazabal dominated the amateur scene, also winning the British Boys' and Youths' titles and the Open silver medal. Within nine years of turning professional he passed the pounds 3m mark in European earnings. He also won the 1990 World Series in America by 12 shots and enjoyed a legendary pairing with Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup, losing just two of their 15 matches together.

"That all seems a long time ago," Olazabal said. "I feel I am at the bottom of the ladder again. When I come back it will be like starting over - no expectations, taking any good result as a bonus. I've always been a thin, weak guy, but technically strong because my passion for the game makes me work at it like a madman. I will have to work even harder now."