Olazabal puts bend in familiar tale

April 12, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The story line has become a cliche: a boy grows up next to a golf course, learns the game from his father or older brother or friends, dreams of winning the Masters and one day puts the green jacket around his shoulders.

It happened to Ray Floyd as a kid in Fayetteville, N.C., where his father, L. B., was a noted teacher and where, as a teen-ager, Ray used to hustle the army officers for big-stake bets at Fort Bragg. It happened to Lee Trevino in El Paso, Texas, where he did the same at the scratchy public courses on the wrong side of town.

It happened to Seve Ballesteros, one of several brothers from the Spanish town of Pedrena, Santana. And, on the surface at least, it seems to have happened to Jose-Maria Olazabal, a 28-year-old Spaniard who fulfilled his dreams and the expectations of many by winning the 58th Masters on Sunday at Augusta National.

But story lines can be deceiving.

Olazabal grew up next to the Real Golf Club de San Sabastian in Fuenterrabia, where his father, Caspar, was the greenskeeper. "I was born right in the middle of the golf course," Olazabal said after his two-shot victory over Tom Lehman. "And I started playing when I was 2 years old."

Olazabal was exaggerating, but not greatly. He did live next to the golf course, but only because of his father's job. And he did start playing at an early age, but Olazabal's father had nothing to do with it. "There was nobody around to play with," Olazabal said. "He [Caspar] had no clue about the game."

As for the Masters, Olazabal had no idea either.

"When I was 10 or 12, I didn't know Augusta existed," he said.

From those modest, yet convenient, circumstances, a star was born. But it took longer than many had predicted of a player who was supposed to be the next Ballesteros, the next foreigner to make a major impact on the PGA Tour. The same things were being said for much of the past eight years.

Every so often, Olazabal seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. He won the 1986 European Masters and 16 other tournaments all over the world. He got a little attention for winning the 1990 World Series, shooting a final-round 62 and blowing away the field by 12 shots. He got even less for winning the 1991 International.

"I think people knew that I was Seve's friend," Olazabal said.

But his wildness off the tee was starting to catch up with him, and he never was quite as imaginative or magical as his mentor had been around the greens. When his game slumped the past two years to where it was barely worth it for him to leave Europe, Olazabal even talked about quitting.

"Five minutes later he would change his mind," said Sergio Gomez, who has known Olazabal since he was a 13-year-old prodigy and has been his manager since he turned pro.

Last November, Olazabal went to noted swing guru John Jacobs to work on shoulder turn. The minor adjustment led to a major turnaround in Olazabal's game, and in his first five tournaments this year, he won once and finished second twice. Then came the Masters, an event he nearly won in 1991 before bogeying the final hole to come in a shot behind Ian Woosnam.

"I knew it [the change] was going to be just like it was, but it was good to have someone like John Jacobs to work with," Olazabal said. "It has worked out very well."

Indeed. Olazabal's victory at the Masters was his first major championship. It was the sixth time in the past seven years that a foreigner has negotiated the wide fairways and slick, undulating greens of Augusta National better than any American. And it drew comparisons to Ballesteros, who won here in 1980 and 1983.

While Olazabal has been compared to Ballesteros, the relationship between them always has been stronger than the rivalry. Unlike Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, or Nicklaus and Tom Watson, the older player always has been more a compatriot than a competitor.

"He had a very big influence on me," Olazabal said of a relationship that dates to 1982, when he was a 16-year-old amateur and Ballesteros was the No. 1 player in the world. "He's given me the courage and confidence to keep on playing."

Said Ballesteros: "I always felt Jose-Maria had the ability to win a major championship."

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