Olazabal's masterful win caps emotional ride

Victory caps ascent from injury's depths

April 13, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The house sits a pitching wedge away from the Real Golf Club de San Sebastian. It is a modest home, especially compared to the residences of some of Jose Maria Olazabal's friends on the European and PGA tours.

Three years ago, it was more than just a place for Olazabal to live.

It was a place for him to hide, to curse the fates that had left the former Masters champion with a painful foot condition that prevented him from being able to play the game he had learned there in Fuenterrabia, Spain.

Sharing the house was his father, Gaspar, a greenskeeper at the club, his mother, Julia, who had worked there as a waitress when Olazabal was a boy, and a sister. They, too, were part of this emotional prison.

"They couldn't say a word," Olazabal recalled Sunday night. "The situation is bad. There is nothing they can say to you that can cheer you up. Some of the players wanted to come and visit me, but I was so low I didn't want them to see me that way."

There will be a far different mood in the house when Olazabal returns there as champion of the 63rd Masters at Augusta National. Nonetheless, Olazabal knew that his homecoming would be emotional.

It is a trip Olazabal never expected to take place, after a victory he never expected.

"When I was at my lowest, I never thought about this happening again," Olazabal, 33, said an hour or so after he had completed his two-shot victory over Davis Love with a winning score of 8-under-par 280. "To be standing in front of you with a green jacket, it's some achievement that I didn't even dream about when I was so low."

It's an achievement that's not without precedent in golf. History tells us that other players have made similar and even more stunning comebacks from injury.

The legendary Ben Hogan came back from a near-fatal car crash to win four more major championships. More recently, Steve Jones won the 1996 U.S. Open after a five-year layoff caused by a freak accident that made holding a club difficult.

"I never thought about that," Olazabal said. "I always kept trying to be positive, but I never thought about those facts. I was more worried about the situation. I was making myself hope all the time."

Olazabal's condition was originally diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, for which there is no known cure. But a German doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfart, treated Olazabal for nerve damage in his back. His foot pain had been caused by displaced vertebrae pinching nerves in his lower back.

"Without him, I wouldn't be standing here," said Olazabal, his voice choked with emotion. "I think I won this tournament because of him. He did a wonderful job with me, and I want to thank him personally because I think this victory, part of it belongs to him."

It was Olazabal's fifth victory on the PGA Tour, and his 23rd worldwide. But as well as Olazabal had played in helping Europe win the 1997 Ryder Cup and as emotional as that victory was because it was held in Valderrama, Spain, this was more satisfying and even more emotional.

His victory here five years ago seems now to pale in comparison.

"It's not comparable," said Olazabal, who outplayed Tom Lehman down the stretch in '94 just as he did with Greg Norman and Love on Sunday. "The first I won here in '94, it was my first major. I didn't have the knowledge or the time to really enjoy the jacket, the victory.

"This one I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy it much more for several reasons. I appreciate things more in life. I'm not talking about the game itself. Just being able to wake up in the morning and do whatever you want, enjoy the weather, enjoy the scenery."

Olazabal said that the 18 months he spent away from the game made him a different player, more patient and more in control of his emotions.

There were times during the comeback that he questioned whether he could win another major since his results had been spotty.

If anything helped Olazabal going into the tournament last week, it was an impromptu pep talk he received from Gary Player at the champions' dinner Tuesday night. Player talked to Olazabal about his swing, and told Olazabal to believe in himself.

"The determination and his words and the way he said it, you know it helped me," Olazabal said. "It helped me to believe in myself, too."

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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