Olazabal battles the pain

Guy Hodgson reports on a new setback for Europe's Ryder Cup plans
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The Independent Online
JOSE-MARIA OLAZABAL cut a sorry figure at Shinnecock Hills yesterday. He was chasing his first US Open win but it was hardly an elegant pursuit. As he limped over the sandy fairways he looked like an elderly man creaking round his weekly game.

The 29-year-old Spaniard, who scored 72 in the third round yesterday, is obviously in pain, suffering with an injury that has implications far beyond this tournament. He finds it difficult to get from hole to hole although he can still swing a club with little discomfort.

An operation is required on a non-malignant growth that is pressing on a nerve between the third and fourth toes on his right foot. The pain is clearly not the sort that can be soothed by a few aspirin. "It is affecting my walking," he said, "and also my left foot because I'm leaning too much on it. I will have to have surgery, hopefully after the end of the season."

Olazabal can play only if he wraps his foot in ice at night and wears an orthopaedic wrapping while he is on the course. If the pain becomes too unbearable, and he has to bring forward the surgery there has to be a doubt over his participation in the Ryder Cup match at Oak Hill in September. A weakened Olazabal is a major concern for the European team, particularly as his compatriot Seve Ballesteros is also having problems with his back.

Ballesteros, who with Olazabal has formed Europe's most successful partnership since they were paired together in 1987, contemplated withdrawing from the US Open after injuring his back nine days ago. His swing was affected and contributed to his seven-over-par 147 after two rounds, which was not good enough to make the cut. "I have to quit on shots," he said. "I can't go through with my swing."

At The Belfry two years ago, Ballesteros had to sit out the second four- balls largely because his back was troubling him and in the following day's singles, losing three and two to Jim Gallagher. The prospect of going into a Ryder Cup with both Spaniards injured is not an enticing one. "We will lose," Colin Montgomerie said un- equivocally. "Without Seve and Olazabal the team would be deflated and we don't need deflation at all."

David Leadbetter, who coaches Nick Faldo, also underlined the impact of losing Olazabal and Ballesteros. "The problem with the European team," he said, "is that there's no strength in depth. To lose two players of their quality would be a big blow."

Olazabal's Ryder Cup record is hugely impressive, winning 12 matches and losing only six. Even if Olazabal is fit to play, he may have to limit the tournaments in which he competes until September, which will affect whether he will make the team automatically by finishing in the top 10 in the points list.

At present he is ninth with 212,534 points and Gallacher might have to use one of his two captain's choices on him. As Ian Woosnam is also on the edge of the top 10 and Nick Faldo is playing in the United States, Gallacher's choice might boil down to two of those three.