Olazabal advances with a spring in his step

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The Independent Online
You cannot help yourself. Watch Jose-Maria Olazabal and your eyes have to drop downwards. His whippy, youthful swing may have conjured the perfect arc on the ball, yet the extent of his limp intrudes on your appreciation.

It is inquisitiveness laced with concern and something the Spaniard understands. In your position, he would be looking, too. As recently as last month's US Open, his feet rather than his scores also preoccupied him, the pain shooting up his legs a reminder of the 18 months during which he feared his career was over. There will be many players thankful to be at Royal Troon for the Open this week, yet few will be as grateful as Olazabal.

"The picture was a very dark one," Olazabal said of his mood 12 months ago, when what he thought was rheumatoid arthritis in his right foot made walking impossible. "I thought I might never play golf again. I had to watch the Open on television and the situation was not very pleasant at all."

That is an understatement. Olazabal, the Masters champion of 1994, appeared to be crossing the threshold into the height of his powers when he was struck down. His last, agonising attempt at a tournament had been the Lancome Trophy in September 1995, after which he entered into a period of treatment that made his condition worse.

Indeed Olazabal, 31, would probably be burning with frustration watching events from Troon on the small screen this week had he not taken one last shot at recuperation. A friend from his amateur days recommended a doctor in Munich, who diagnosed a hernia trapped on his spinal column. The pain in his toes was not rheumatoid arthritis, but a long-distance symptom.

"All the nerves in your body run through your spine," he said, "and if the gap between the vertebrae is not wide enough, some of them get pinched. The right information was not getting to my legs."

Those wires were disentangled when a two-day visit last autumn to Dr Hans Wilhelm Muller-Wolfhart became three weeks and creeping despair became burgeoning hope. Olazabal spent up to six hours a day reconstructing his muscles and four months ago he introduced himself to the European Tour.

His results since - 26th was his worst place until he missed the cut at Loch Lomond last week - would have been satisfactory for almost anyone, but for someone who had not played golf for 18 months, it was staggering. "I don't have a clue why I was in contention straight away," he said. "I thought I'd need a lot of time to feel comfortable on a golf course, so it was a surprise to me I did as well as I did."

Olazabal, to wholescale amazement, is such a genuine contender at Troon this week that the ambitions he voiced yesterday can not be dismissed as fanciful. "When you come to a tournament like this, you are not looking for second or third position, you are looking for a win. The Open is special. Somehow, when I tee off in this tournament it feels different to any other in the world.

"Anybody who has gone through tough situations gets more mature. I've arrived at the Open a few times striking the ball even better than I am now, but I wasn't as mature. I think that everything is on my side."

Well, almost everything. This will be the first time he has played three tournaments in successive weeks since his comeback and his missed cut at Loch Lomond rankled. His driving had let him down, he said. "I would have loved to have been in contention, it would have been the best thing for this week."

The ache in his foot and the exercises to soothe it linger, but it is a measure of how far Olazabal has travelled that tee shots, rather than the shortest walk, trouble him now.

His limp yesterday? There was no sign of it at all.