On the trail of genius

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The Independent Online
In 1989, after Jose Maria Olazabal had finished eighth in the Masters, a good friend of his, the owner of a renowned restaurant in his home town of San Sebastian, promised that if he ever won at Augusta, he would crack open a bottle of Romanee Conti, a pounds 500 burgundy. If he had won this week, a vineyard in Champagne might have been an appropriate reward.

However, although quite well placed in the mortals' combat, in common with the rest of the field he needs a telescope to see the phenomenon that is Tiger Woods, a demoralising 14 shots in the distance. But then when you have a young man who humbles the course by reaching par-fives in two with 151-yard wedge shots, what can you do? This week, while Olazabal and 84 others have been playing a near-7,000 yards championship course, the irresistible Woods has effectively treated the real thing like the par-three tournament they all played on Wednesday.

As for his own game, Olazabal has been pretty chastened with his putting. "I have played pretty well from tee to green," he said after a two-over- par 74 yesterday, featuring 36 putts, had left him on one under par for the tournament. "The story of my week has been on the greens."

Olazabal began well enough, chipping to three feet at the par-five second hole and sinking the birdie putt. But his long pitch to the third ended some 50 feet from the flag. Possibly deceived by the slower speed of the greens brought about by the morning's heavy showers, he left his first putt six feet short and missed the next one.

He bogeyed the fourth from a bunker, three-putted the sixth, and took six at the long eighth, where his drive plugged in a bunker. Coming home, his birdie at the 15th was the result of missing a seven-footer for an eagle.

This tournament conjures up mixed, vivid emotions for Olazabal. Six years ago, he was inconsolable after bogeying the last hole when a par would have earned him a play-off. Three years ago, he won by two shots. One year ago, he watched the tournament on television, unable to play competitive golf as his now notorious foot injury began the deterioration that soon would bring him, on some occasions literally, to his knees.

In the 12 months between then and now, he plumbed the depths of despair. He believed he had rheumatoid arthritis, feared he would never be cured and, in the darkest days of all, thought that at the age of 31, he might soon be deprived of the ability to walk, never mind play golf.

A reassessment of his illness in September led to fresh treatment, and one of the most remarkable comebacks in golf since Ben Hogan recovered from his near-fatal car crash in 1949 was completed when Olazabal won in the Canary Islands last month.

Speaking this week about the incorrect diagnosis, Olazabal was in fact reluctant to speak at all. "Life is like that," he said with a shrug. "It happens."

A rejuvenated Olazabal could do much to revitalise the European tour. His overall current form will also help to assuage the concerns of Seve Ballesteros, the Ryder Cup captain, about the strength of his team. Olazabal lies 20th in the qualifying table; he needs to be in the top 10 at the end of August in order to make the team as of right.

Irrespective of the performance of Mr Woods, it would have been stretching credulity to imagine that Olazabal could go the whole way and win a major championship in only his fifth start in 18 months. But in all the circumstances, he will have more to celebrate when he leaves Augusta National tonight than he did in 1994.

After his victory then, his manager, Sergio Gomez, went to a local liquor store and assembled a trolley-full of drinks. When he got to the check- out, he was told he couldn't buy them. "Georgia stores are dry on Sunday," the cashier explained.

Later on Olazabal had returned from the champion's dinner and was looking pensive. Gomez asked what he was thinking. "I am thinking about that bottle of Romanee Conti."