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Olazabal no longer the forgotten Spaniard

Until he slipped on the same green jacket he wore five years ago, Jose Maria Olazabal had become the forgotten Spaniard, caught between the past and the future.

Fading into the twilight was Seve Ballesteros and his five major championships, two of them at Augusta National in which he conquered the treacherous greens with a majestic short game.

The 63rd Masters was the debut of the heir apparent to Ballesteros -- Sergio Garcia, a cocky kid who won the British Amateur last summer at 18 and became the first European to take low amateur honours at the Masters.

Olazabal was lucky to be playing again. He spent 18 months out of golf with a lower back problem that left him unable to walk. He returned in 1997 and won the Turespana Masters, but made the Ryder Cup only as a captain's pick.

He returned to the forefront Sunday with a dynamic display of pressure golf on the back nine of Augusta, and suddenly he was the toast of Spain.

Ballesteros, who missed the cut and returned home, sent his congratulations by fax and released a statement.

"He won with authority from beginning to the end," Ballesteros said. "This triumph will compensate him, in part, for some of the bad moments that destiny wanted him to face with courage."

King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar also offered congratulations.

"Victory of faith," the Spanish sports newspaper Marca wrote.

The newspaper El Pais added: "Spanish golf is at the top again."

Trailing Greg Norman for as long as it took him to line up a 20-foot birdie putt on the 13th, Olazabal put three strokes between them over the next three holes and won by two strokes over Davis Love III.

Olazabal became the only player to win two Masters in the 1990s, and the 11th European to win in 20 years.

"This one, I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy much more than the one I had before, for several reasons," Olazabal said, tugging at the lapel of his green jacket.

"The most important one is the problems I went through to be here," he said. "And also because it's my second major. I won my first one ... you might say, 'OK, it might have been a lucky week.' But when you win two -- especially the way I did it -- means a lot more to me."

The way Olazabal won is the how the Masters is almost always decided.

He knew that after his 66 in the second round gave him the lead going into the weekend. He knew after he made three straight bogeys early in the final round that knocked him out of the lead.

He walked down the steep slope toward the sixth tee, turned to caddie Brenden McCartain and said, "We still can make a few pars, make a birdie or two, and I think we have a chance to win the tournament."

Despite all the alterations at Augusta, one thing never changes -- the Masters doesn't begin until the 10th tee has the sun begins to drop behind the Georgia pines.

Olazabal played those final nine holes better than anyone. He became only the fourth champion since 1981 to go without a bogey on the back nine.

"The winner is not going to be the one who makes the most birdies, but the one who makes the fewest mistakes," Colin Montgomerie predicted after the first round, alluding to the rough, the extra length on the 17th hole and the newly raised green on No. 11.

Olazabal did a little of both. Augusta required no less.

By the time he and Greg Norman walked to the 10th tee, five players were tied for the lead at 5-under -- those two, along with Davis Love III, Steve Pate and Bob Estes. David Duval and Lee Janzen were another stroke back.

One by one, they dropped from the top.

Pate, who made a Masters-record seven consecutive birdies on Saturday, made 10 straight pars on Sunday. That might have sufficed on a most difficult day at Augusta when no one broke 70 in the final round for the first time since 1972.

But Pate finally buckled at the 11th with a bogey, and then fell out of contention for good with bogeys on the 16th and 17th. Estes dropped only one shot, also at No. 11, but never could get it back.

Love was the only other player among the contenders who didn't make a bogey, but even his unforgettable chip-in on No. 16 -- he played the shot 25 feet left the flag and let it catch the slope into the hole -- wasn't enough.

Olazabal took care of that, and he also took care of Norman.

The 33-year-old Spaniard knew the green jacket he wore Sunday was the same he was given in 1994 because his name on the inside was misspelled -- Olazabel.

Not many knew about him in 1994, and not many cared about him this time. The cheers were for Tom Lehman then, and they were even more raucous for Norman on Sunday, everyone pulling for him to end a career of misery at Augusta.

Norman didn't collapse like he did in 1996. He didn't get burned by a miracle shot like the one Larry Mize pulled off in 1987. He didn't make a blunder on the 18th hole like 1986.

He didn't play the kind of golf Olazabal produced, either.

"It's not a heartbreak," said Norman, who finished third after playing in the final group at a major for the eighth time. "Look at that leaderboard. There's probably a lot of other guys here who can sit here and say they're heartbroken, too."

 

TRW