Olazabals Win at 94 NEC Prelude to Long Nightmare


Surely no one in golf history has come back from so crippling a disease so successfully as has Jose Maria Olazabal. From being one of the brightest young stars in the game when he and Seve Ballesteros played so brilliantly in their first Ryder Cup together in '87 to suffering an affliction and being unable to walk for much of '95 and '96 to winning the Masters for the second time in 1999, Olazabal has experienced all the emotions that a career has to offer.
He won the NEC World Series of Golf for the second time at the end of August in 1994. He had won the first time with a resounding 12-shot victory back in 1990. That was one of the most thorough demolitions in modern history as Olazabal marched through the Firestone Country Club field in unforgettable fashion.
It was somewhat different in 1994. The tournament was switched from the South Course of Firestone to the North Course for the only time in history because of the poor condition of the South's greens. Olazabal had won the crusher at the South, now he was about to do the same at the North.
Scott Hoch and Steve Lowery were the two who had the best chance of stopping Olazabal. Lowery birdied 15 and 16 to come within one stroke of tying Olazabal, but a gambling bogey on No. 18 ended his win hopes. Hoch was two behind going to No. 16 and told his caddie, 'I'm going to birdie the last three holes and win it,' but he, too, failed to do it.
Olazabal fired a final-round 67 to come from two off the pace set by Lowery and win. Lowery, thanks to his final-hole bogey, shot 72. Hoch shot 70.
The tournament in August of '94 proved to be Olazabel's last victory until 1997. He limped noticeably on his ailing foot when he tried to play in the World Match Play a couple of months later, then finally at the Casio World Open in Japan. He took time off in December and January as he usually does, then on Jan. 31 on 1995 he had surgery to remove a portion of his right toe, which was deemed too large.
'The problem was that the bone was too long and pushing against the foot,' he said at the time. He was still limping that year as he made his debut at the Turespana Masters Andalucia in the beginning of March, 1995.
'The foot is not 100 percent, but I am walking better now, and this week I can practice as normal,' he said at the tournament in Spain. He was still noticeably limping when he came to the U.S. later in the month to play Bay Hill. He played in three tournaments leading up the Masters, where he had won in 1994.
He tied for 14th in the '95 Masters and was certain he was improving. But it was a false hope. He admitted in August of that year, 'Physically, I'm not OK. I'm having some trouble with my right foot. The walking really bothers me. Hopefully, I have a couple of weeks ahead of me to recover from it. I might be ready by the Ryder Cup.'
In mid-year of '95, doctors in Spain thought they had found an answer. A tumor between his third and fourth toes had been found. When he walked, the tumor pressed on nerves and pain shot up the foot. More surgery was in order for the off-season.
He missed the Ryder Cup, though, and by now he was really worried. It was almost a year since the problem had begun, he had gone through two toe surgeries, and nothing had relieved the pain. He was developing leg and hip problems because of the stress he was putting on other joints while trying to protect his foot. He was just 30 years old and it appeared that his career might be over.
On into 1996, it continued. He tried to play in an exhibition match with Seve Ballesteros against Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance early in the year, but he paid dearly for it. Olazabal was in crutches the following day. He was supposed to return to the European Tour in March for the Dubai Desert Classic, but recurring pain forced him to cancel.
Now he had tried just about everything. He had visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He had undergone a variety of treatments, including homeopathy and chemotherapy. He was now on a special diet after sending blood samples to a British laboratory.
'They advised him to avoid coffee, corn, yeast and onions,' said his manager, Sergio Gomez, in July of 1995. 'It all seems to be working because he is considerably better than he was three months ago.
'He accepts that he is probably going to have to play in some pain for the rest of his life, but he does not want to make his comeback when the pain is at a level which affects his concentration.'
Olazabal was then trying to play three days a week, but he never could grind it out for more than 12 or 13 holes without the foot giving him so much trouble that he would have to quit. He tried fitfully to play tournaments, hobbling around through the Trophee Lancome in Paris in September of 1995, but finally he could no longer walk. He went into seclusion at his house in Spain and was virtually bed-ridden.
Olazabal gave up hope of ever playing again as his condition worsened. He was house-bound, able to move only to crawl to the bathroom. That was his condition when, in late summer of 1996, he was ready to grab at any relief, regardless of the method. And that was when he met a Munich doctor, Hans Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt.
Muller-Wohlfahrt had a diagnosis that surprised everyone associated with Olazabal. The problem, said the doctor, was in his lower back. A hernia there had caused the foot pain, not rheumatoid arthritis, as virtually everyone else had diagnosed the difficulty.
With the focus now on that area of the anatomy, Olazabal began to make rapid progress. Before long he could walk a little. Then he could hit balls. He actually played practice rounds Feb. 24 and 25, 1997, in Dubai, then practiced for five hours a day with only five-minute breaks each hour.
And finally, he returned to competition after an 18-month absence. He played all four rounds at that tournament at Dubai, and in his third event back after the lengthy hiatus, he won ' at the Turespana Masters.
Olazabal went through hell and back, but he had finally arrived. It was his first win since that NEC World Series in Akron, back in 1994. It wouldn't, however, be his last.