Olazabal back on his feet with round of 69

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The Independent Online

In the gloaming that is the rapid twilight of the Middle East, a beacon of European golf was relit. With a sand wedge in his hands, Jose Maria Olazabal hit his third shot at the par-five finishing hole to three feet for his fourth birdie of a day that he has waited for so long.

A round of three-under 69 after a break of 18 months with arthritis of the feet was highly impressive. The Spaniard never did look that comfortable when walking, hunched forward and rocking from side to side, but the limp that developed two years ago was missing. Certainly present was the dismissive shrug when a putt refused to fall.

Early morning fog had delayed play in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic which meant Olazabal did not tee off until 1.50pm. The reception was warm and his gallery only dwindled to catch the dramatics in the group in front.

Collectively they were 19 under. Colin Montgomerie began the defence of his title with a seven-under 65, to tie with Spain's Domingo Hospital for the lead, while Padraig Harrington and Bernhard Langer were both at six under, alongside two former champions Mark James and Eamonn Darcy. "I think it is terrific for Jose to break 70," Montgomerie said. "That will give him a lot of confidence and all of us a lot of confidence."

A poor chip at the ninth caused Olazabal's only dropped shot which is testament to his short game. Having turned in level par, the Masters champion of 1994 holed from 30 feet at the 15th and 18 feet at the next before also claiming the last.

"I am pretty happy with the result," Olazabal said. "I was a little nervous on the first tee, but nothing dramatic. I hit the ball OK, but nothing very close. At the end, when I didn't expect it, I holed a couple of long putts. One of the things I have missed is the competition but today I just told myself to do my best.''

And the feet? "I don't want to talk about that," he said. Greg Norman, playing his first full tournament for three months, actually looked the more rusty of the two and found the water twice during his 71. The same could not be said of Montgomerie, who, when he did go off line into the sand left of the 13th fairway, faded a two-iron out of trouble to two feet.

"It is always nice to be able to tap in for an eagle," said Monty, who also recorded five birdies and no bogeys. "Padraig putted as well as anyone I've seen and I enjoy playing with Bernhard Langer. He is always a nice guy to beat," he added.