Another Comeback for Olazabal

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Jose Maria Olazabal wasn't sure if this moment would ever materialize. But, then again, he has overcome things much worse than an ailing golf game.
 
Olazabal fired a 7-under-par 65 to post a 13-under total in the Buick Invitational, and then waited as J.L. Lewis and Mark O'Meara collapsed to hand him his first PGA Tour title since the 1999 Masters Tournament.
 
'The last couple of years I didn't play well at all,' Olazabal said, 'so this is a new feeling.'
 
Olazabal collected $648,000 for his triumph. It was his sixth career PGA Tour victory, and his first non-major since the 1994 World Series of Golf. The Spaniard, who turned 36 Tuesday, won twice on the European Tour in 2001, but longed for stateside success.
 
Five years ago, Olazabal was ecstatic just to swing a club. He was sidelined for 18 months, during which he was bedridden due a back condition that made it agonizingly painful to walk.
 
He returned to competition in 1997, winning almost immediately. His near-miraculous recovery extended into a pair of Ryder Cup appearances and five European Tour victories over a five-year span.
 
Nonetheless, Olazabal was unhappy with his game. He doubted if he would ever regain his major-caliber form.
 
'When you're not playing well, you wonder to yourself if you're going to be able to get things back on track,' said Olazabal, who, last year, enlisted the help of Tiger Woods' instructor, Butch Harmon.
 
With a more consistent swing in his arsenal, Olazabal showed signs of promise in a tie for fifth last week at Pebble Beach. However, he struggled to qualify for weekend play in San Diego, birdieing his final hole Friday to make the cut on the number at 1-under.
 
A third-round 67 put him back in contention; still, he needed something spectacular Sunday in order to win.
 
The final round was a test of patience and endurance. With the sun beating down and the mercury rising to 75 degrees, players trekked around the 7,568-yard South Course in the neighborhood of 5 1/2 hours.
 
Eight players entered the final round tied or within one shot of the lead; 1999 champion Woods (66) wasnt among them, but made some noise early before fading into a tie for fifth place at 10-under.
 
A playoff appeared inevitable, and Olazabal was the first to post a number. He birdied four of his final six holes. The two-time Masters champion nearly eagled the finishing hole, spinning his third shot from 94 yards just past the left edge of the cup. He made the short birdie putt to finish at minus 13.
 
While Olazabal went to hit balls off the first tee in preparation of sudden death, Lewis, O'Meara and John Daly took aim at his target.
 
Daly, seeking his first victory since the 1995 British Open, made it to 11-under with one hole remaining. He hit his tee shot into the left fairway bunker; but, needing an eagle to tie, he cast aside any notion of laying up.
 
'I had to go for it, man,' Daly said. 'I figured I had to hit 4-iron, maybe into the (greenside) bunker, and try and hole-out.
 
'I haven't been in this position in a while, had to go for it.'
 
Daly ripped his mid-iron; his approach ran violently through the fairway and into the right bunker, with the pin tucked on the left-hand side of the green.
 
He nearly executed his plan, missing his bunker blast by a few feet. He, however, also missed the birdie putt and finished in fourth place at 11-under.
 
'I'm getting closer (to winning),' he said.
 
O'Meara, who, like Daly hadn't won since hoisting the Claret Jug, held sole possession of the lead at 13-under through 11 holes. But he bogeyed Nos. 12 and 17 to keep him winless since 1998.
 
Lewis was the last man to challenge Olazabal. Following his birdie at the par-4 17th, his drive at 18 kicked into the right rough. He hit a 6-iron, but it jumped out of the flier lie, and traveled 220 yards, instead of the desired 175.
 
Lewis left himself with a tricky third shot, 72 yards from the pin, in the left rough. With his ball hovering on top of the grass, he caught another flier. His ball carried 45 feet past the flagstick.
 
He now had to two-putt to stay alive.
 
His first effort was a timid one, coming to rest seven feet from the hole. Lewis then pushed his par putt.
 
'I choked,' said a dejected Lewis, whose lone victory came in the 1999 John Deere Classic. 'I just embarrassed myself, what can I say?'
 
Just the opposite held true for Olazabal. This was the third of what he hopes to be at least 18 starts on the PGA Tour this season. And with one victory already under his belt, perhaps he will challenge his 22-year-old countryman, Sergio Garcia, who desires to win money titles on both the European and PGA Tour.
 
'I'm just pleased that I won this week,' he said with a laugh. 'I'm not that young.'
 
Full-field scores from the Buick Invitational