No Way Jose Well Maybe

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He missed winning at Atlanta on Monday because he gagged on two putts of inside five feet. Jose Maria Olazabal misfired the first time on 18 in regulation play, then he missed again on the first playoff hole. Either one would have won it.
 
Its Page 1 news when Olazabal misses such putts. He has forever been one of the best in the world at putting. Even today, he stands 13th on the PGA Tour at holing them (and 11th in putts per round). This man is Dead-Eye Sam when it comes to pouring them in under pressure.
 
Today, Olazabal begins play in the Masters. If anyone knows his way around Augusta National, its Jose Maria Olazabal. He won the first time here back in 1994, then repeated the feat in 1999. Four other times he finished in the top 10, including a runner-up finish to Ian Woosnam in 91 when Olazabal led through the 15th hole on the final day and was tied for the lead until Woosnam birdied the 72nd hole. He tied for eighth as recently as two years ago, in 2003.
 
Can he win the Masters again? No, of course not. Hes too old, isnt he? Hes too crooked with the driver, isnt he? He doesnt have the confidence ' right?
 
Well, maybe we ought to reconsider a little. Ollie wasnt playing great when he won in 99, either. Some of those top-10s have come during years when his game certainly didnt suggest he would excel at the Masters. But he manufactures a good score, even when he cant manufacture great shots.
 
He loves this place, said fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia simply.
 
Olazabal doesnt try to deny it. It must be something with this place, I don't know Every time I come here, I try to do my best. I feel in a way a little bit at peace with myself. You know, those things happen.
 
A lot of people forget that, were it not for a two-shot penalty in Atlanta, he would have won easily. That came in the second round when he slammed the bunker with his club ' which of itself is not a penalty. Unfortunately, the ball trickled back into the bunker. His no-no cost him the tournament eventually.
 
He did tie for second, however, and that second-place finish did something for him that he had been vainly trying to accomplish the last couple of years ' he regained his tour card. It boosted his money won to $685,732, which is most important. It pushed him above the 150 level of last year (Paul Stankowski made $442,872 and finished at No. 150) and allows him to play unlimited tournaments the rest of this year. And it virtually assures him of finished in the top 125 this year (the figure was $623,262 last year.) He wont have to go begging for sponsors invites next season.
 
Olazabal is popular with the rank and file of the tour for many reasons. He has always conducted himself first and foremost as a gentleman ' witness his gesture of shaking hands with his two opponents at the Monday playoff after leaving the battle. He has always been among the most highly regarded of the international players to the Americans.
 
One remembers the outburst on the 17th green at the Ryder Cup in 99, Justin Leonard sinking the 45-foot putt. And one remembers Olazabal, patiently waiting for the Americans to get off the green so he could putt. And one also remembers Olazabal refusing to lay blame for the incident on anyone. That one act struck a hugely responsive chord in the U.S. players.
 
One remembers the painful time Olazabal had for 18 months in 95, 96 and 97 with the debilitating foot ailment when he couldnt walk. One also remembers when he won his third tournament back from the prolonged absence at the 1997 Turespana Masters on the European Tour.
 
Most of all, Americans remember the way that Olazabal has always felt about the PGA Tour. Ive always wanted to play over here, he said last year. I've always said that this tour is excellent. ... If you want to improve your game, or at least if you want the best of the challenge, I think it's here.
 
Ollies home is still in Spain. He hasnt yet event so much as purchased a condo in the U.S., but he spends much of his time in the America. He wouldnt go so far as to say he would have gone to Q-School if he had missed getting his card again this year. But he would never ' ever ' have left the game of golf. Thats how strong his love is for the game.
 
I do have to love it a lot, he said. I love the game a lot. I love the competition. I love the challenge. When I'm not playing, I miss it a lot.
 
Will Olazabal do the near-unthinkable and win the Masters this week? No, probably not. But the chances are that he will come a lot closer than people think. Ollie has been surprising people for a long, long time.
 
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