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Olazabal's year of pleasure and pain

Olazabal's year of pleasure and pain

For Jose-Maria Olazabal, it has been the season of ultimate recognition. In his home town of Fuenterrabia, a small fishing town along the wonderful craggy coastline of northern Spain where he lives, they have made him a preferred citizen, an honour bestowed only twice before in the town's long history dating back well over a thousand years.

Some 20 kilometres along the shoreline in San Sebastian another rare honour was given last week, at the 24-hour fiesta they call Tamborrada. Here he was given the golden drum, which is awarded each year to a citizen who spreads the name of San Sebastian worldwide. Last year it was the opera singer, Ainhoa Arteta. Only one sportsman has ever previously been honoured.

It is understandable, therefore, that the long trip to Australia on Saturday for

two successive tournaments, beginning with this week's Heineken Classic in Perth, was undertaken with some reserve. It is, however, a statement of intent: to reclaim his place among the very best golfers in the world.

Given his current status as US Masters champion that might appear strange but Olazabal believes his driving had become so poor that he lost his place among the elite. His determination to do something about it is obvious.

Hawaii last November was perhaps the final straw. He was competing against Davis Love in the Grand Slam of Golf and lost badly despite playing well. That night he told friends: "How can I compete when I am always 40 metres behind off the tee?"

So during his month-long break this winter he has spent each morning exercising, working on specific muscles.

"Obviously you have to be careful," he says.

"If you work some muscles too hard you can lose your sense of feel. But I need to get some length so I can win some more tournaments again."

We met high above San Sebastian, in the clubhouse overlooking a spectacular course he designed, with the mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees visible through the ethereal mist in the distance. The Tamborrada was to begin at midnight, some nine hours later, and Olazabal was naturally flush with excitement.

He talked until the interviewer ran out of questions: about his career-threatening injury in 1996 and its lasting impact; about the Basque way of living and the endless fascination as to when he will get married; about last year, a season of extremes when he won the Masters, broke his hand at the US Open and was the man standing on the 17th green at the Ryder Cup when the Americans trampled on all golf's ethics.

In so doing he offered a little insight into the man his inseparable manager, Sergio Gomez, refers to as the "most private, public golfer", a player that all his peers look up to because of his unimpeachable integrity.

After all, how can you not think highly of a man who, on receiving a large cheque from his ball sponsor Titleist in 1997, sent it back with a note saying: "I have not played all season. I cannot accept your money when I have not earned it."

Olazabal has just come to the end of what he regards as his "holy period", from the middle of December to the middle of January, when nothing will separate him from his family.

His driving is the first thing he wants to talk about. When he left the game owing to his foot ailment in the autumn of 1995 he was an average driver, one of the last still using persimmon.

When he returned in the spring of 1997 he was using metal, and poorly at that.

In 1998 there was a gradual deterioration and at times in 1999 he was the worst driver among the top 100 golfers in the world. Hence the workouts, the building up of his strength.

Olazabal's first test of the new regime is this coming week at the Vines. At the end of February he will play in America for the first time since the Ryder Cup.

He admits he still finds it hard to understand the over-reaction of the US team, how players brought up in the traditions of the game could run on to the green and hold up play.

His own pride at the prospect of returning to Augusta in April as defending champion is all too evident. He goes through last year's final day, of the putt he sank at 13 following Greg Norman's holed effort for an eagle and his belief that "it truly was a sign that once again my time had come".

As for the poor golf that marked the second half of the year, he believes it all stemmed from his driving. At one time, only one thought sustained him -- and that was the time he spent out of the game when he could not walk.

"It remains the perfect reminder that while you have bad times in this game, things can always be much worse," he said.

And so to the Tamborrada.

Picture the scene: it is a Spanish market square at midnight and it is heaving with the fervent Basque youth of San Sebastian. They are waiting but where is the man who will stand on the balcony and lower the flag to signal the start of the all-day fiesta?

Then he emerges, from the grasp of the mayor, from the hand of Miss Espana, from the clutch of television and radio crews. He is in that giddy stage where he cannot stop smiling, no matter how hard he tries.

The crowd start to chant: Ollie, they cry. Ollie, Ollie, Ollie.

Thus began one of the proudest days yet in this extraordinary life.

After the excitement of the night before, now it was the turn of the city's children, gathered on the steps of the town hall, dressed in colourful uniforms dating back to Napoleonic times and ready for the parade through the streets, each equipped with a drum.

Olazabal mingled with them at first until it was time to go inside, to receive the golden drum. You can see what it meant to him. In his acceptance speech his voice caught at one point and he had to compose himself before he continued.

Could he ever give up living here to play golf full-time elsewhere? "Perhaps for a short time but nothing more than that."

On the steps of the town hall Olazabal accepted the congratulations of the last of the well-wishers and considered this most special of days.

"It's hard to put into words isn't it?" he said.

"In golf you strive to win the Masters but when something like this happens, well, it's outside your comprehension. It is everything."


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