If Jose Maria Olazabal has done the merry-go-round for the final time, he is not going to give up without a fight. He is playing this weekend at the Funai Classic at Walt Disney World, he is 148th on the money list ' but he would dearly love to play with a U.S. card for another year.
The Spaniard was one of the brightest prospects on the European Tour as a 21-year-old when he first made a splash in America, playing in the '87 Ryder Cup at Muirfield with Seve Ballesteros as a partner. It was the first time in history that Europe had won in America, and Olazabal and Seve won three of their four partnership matches.
He won the Masters in 1994 before he was felled by a foot injury in 95 that almost ruined his career. Confined to bed for 18 months, he finally submitted in desperation to the radical theories of a German doctor. But ' it worked!
Instead of focusing on his feet for treatment, the doc went to work on his back. The homeopathic specialist discovered a lower back hernia. His therapy included small doses of vegetable matter to pump up the bodys immune system, and within a short time Olazabal was out of bed and winning golf tournaments again.
Another Masters green jacket was his reward in 1999. And in 2002, now as a member of the PGA Tour, Olazabal won the Buick Open in San Diego.
But this year, he didnt make the Ryder Cup team. And he appears lost on the golf course ' he's 172nd on the PGA Tour in driving distance, 182nd in driving accuracy, 177th in greens hit. Only his magnificent putter ' hes fifth in putts per round ' has keep him from completely going under.
The five-year Masters exemption runs out this year. He plans to get in this tournament after being obligated to play in Spain last weekend at a course he designed. And he will play in Tampa next weekend. That gives him two chances to make $200,000, or else the card goes out to window.
He opened with an impressive 65 the first round at Disney. He still doesnt know exactly what he was doing differently. But it doesnt matter. He may be beginning to find his way, even if it is only temporary. Golf has been a series of nothing but trials and tribulations this year.
It's pretty much been consistency, he sighed. I have to say that my iron play has been pretty bad all year long. I've missed a lot of greens, even from the fairway.
And then even a lot of the greens that I hit, I'm quite far away from the hole. So I'm not giving myself really birdie opportunities, and that has been the problem.
That means that too many times, his brilliant putting has been going for one-putt pars instead of one-putt birdies. And thats not the way to make big bucks.
The driver has always been so-so, even during the good times in Europe. But this year the irons have been added to his list of woes. Its a problem that has concerned him all year.
My driver has been on and off like the rest of the season, so I don't think that is any different to what it has been the last four, five years, said Olazabal.
But I'm thinking more about how I've hit the irons all year long.
He didnt look too kindly on his sparkling work Thursday at Disney, either. Its still a struggle, apparently. Hes still searching for answers.
Well, if you look at the scorecard, I hit all the par 5s, he said. And the iron play, I manage to give like four, five good iron shots, and I took advantage of those.
Then the rest was touch-and-go. I didn't put the ball that close to the hole on the rest of the holes. But that's what I'm fighting, anyway.
He shudders to think about what will happen if he doesnt make it. He definitely will not go through the rigors of Q-School, he says ' not at age 38. He will continue working in the off-season, trying to find that magic elixir that has been missing. He will play the European Tour next year where he has a guaranteed life membership. And ' he will rely on individual tournaments in America to come though with the seven sponsors invites. That will be the extent of his play in the U.S. until he regains his card.
I would have to rely on some invitations next year, obviously,' he said. 'I can play San Diego because I won it a couple years ago, and the Masters. But I would have to rely on invitations.
'We'll see what happens.'
It may be over. But if it is, Olazabal will go out like a true Spanish torreador - figthing all the way.
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