Only stroke off, Olazabal takes next Masters shot

John Steadman

April 09, 1992|By John Steadman

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Had the ball accepted the fade spin that was intentionally imparted, rather than staying on a straight course, there's the likelihood Jose Maria Olazabal would be walking to the tee box today for the introduction and always polite applause that welcomes the incumbent champion of the Masters tournament.

He played the 18th hole correctly, at least strategically, but this .. became his downfall a year ago. It was the implementation of the plan, or the vagaries of a bouncing ball, that took him out of a possible playoff with Ian Woosnam, the ultimate victor of this classic event.

Olazabal, 26, a Spaniard with imposing good looks, is endowed with so much natural talent it glows with all the brightness of a searchlight. He has more trouble with English than he does in putting sub-par numbers on the scoreboard. No major titles have come his way, as yet, but, suffice to say, it's only a question of time.

The kind of ability he possesses can't be denied for long. Look for Jose to climb the sport's highest mountains. Bernard Gallacher, who captained the European Ryder Cup team, says, without qualification: "He's the best golfer in the world." Yes, Olazabal is ready.

It may have happened here in 1991 when his drive on the 18th hole, which he correctly intended to land in the middle of the fairway, didn't assume the soft fade action that was needed. Instead, it was dead-on-a-line and so was Olazabal . . . so far as first place was concerned.

The shot found the fairway trap and Olazabal lost to Woosnam by a stroke. At 5 feet 10, 151 pounds, he's not physically impressive. But he generates tremendous torque and whips the club head into the ball with the crack of a bullwhip.

His father, Gasper, the greenskeeper at the Royal San Sebastian Golf Club, traditionally sets off a volley of fireworks any time Jose wins a tournament. It's a ritual that signals to the surrounding neighbors that, yes, Jose has won and the celebration can begin.

Olazabal hasn't achieved any of the four majors but his resume shows he has earned victories in 16 tournaments. Two years ago, he won the World Series of Golf at Firestone Country Club, not exactly a soft touch, against an elite field, by the astounding margin of 12 shots.

The international rankings place him as the third best golfer in the world. "Inside of 10 feet, he's the finest putter I've ever seen," testifies Seve Ballesteros. And it's getting the ball in the hole that is the distinguishing quality of a winner, here or anywhere else.

A European has won the Masters for the last four years so he doesn't have to be concerned with setting precedent. Why not )) Olazabal? Since he literally grew up on a golf course, where his father mowed the grass, raked traps and set the pins, it was evident as a child that he would have a golfing future.

"I lived so far from town, out in the country, that I didn't have too many boys, or as you Americans say, pals, come visit me," he says. "My only friends were my clubs and a ball." At age 10, he shot an 84 at Club de Campo de Malaga so it was evident the game may provide a career opportunity.

"I'm real happy right now," Jose says. "I think I can play real well, maybe even win the Masters this year."

No doubt, he can handle all the subtleties of the Augusta National layout. During each of the last three Masters, he has put a 68, 4-under-par, on the scorecard in at least one round.

Come Sunday, outside Fuenterrabia, Spain, it will be midnight when the result of the Masters is known. The fireworks are ready but first Jose has to light up the Georgia sky before any of that can happen.

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