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Olazabal looking for return to form

Jose-Maria Olazabal tapped once on the wooden table in front of him in the internationally approved manner to ward off bad omens.

It was the gesture of a man at his wit's end - a man hoping against hope that he can rediscover his mercurial golf game before the Ryder Cup begins in three weeks' time.

The way the Spaniard's game has crumbled these past few months he would be well advised to rap out a drum beat of La Bamba proportions.

It makes it no easier that he can trace the decline back to the US Open when, after a disappointing first round, he sought refuge in his hotel room and took out his frustration on the nearest wall.

The resulting broken bone in his right hand led to an enforced lay-off and the loss of the magical form which had taken him to his second US Masters title last April.

Now he admits his stupidity could cost Ryder Cup points.

"It's as tough as hell," said Olazabal.

"I've been struggling since the US Open and that silly, silly mistake. I haven't been driving the ball well, and it is starting to get to me.

"I can't keep on fighting and trying to save pars. It's very difficult. I have to start to enjoy the game a bit more, but it's so hard when you don't hit the ball like you want to."

It is not exactly the uplifting message Europe's Ryder Cup captain Mark James wants to hear from one of his most experienced and reliable stars.

James will have pencilled in Olazabal, the inspiration behind so many Ryder Cup triumphs alongside fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, as a surefire banker to play all five rounds in Brookline.

But Olazabal is honest enough to admit his game needs a drastic turnaround in the next three weeks, starting tomorrow when he tees off with Tiger Woods in the first round of the NEC Invitational World Championship of Golf here at Firestone Country Club - a course where he has won twice in the past, most notably after firing a course record opening-round 61 in 1990.

For all his problems, however, Olazabal is not downcast about Europe's chances.

That is because of, not despite, the fact that Europe will field seven rookies in Brookline against just one from the United States, and that in the formidable shape of David Duval.

"You know, I've played a few Ryder Cups and I've seen quite a few newcomers on the team in different years," said Olazabal.

"Most of them have done very, very well. Look at Peter Baker when he played at The Belfry. That was amazing. He played with Woosie, and Woosie said: 'I did nothing at all. Everything was done by Peter Baker'.

"He was playing his first Ryder Cup at 21. Sometimes being so young you don't have the responsibility of doing well. You're playing against the best players in the world on paper, but somehow that always seems to take a lot of pressure off the new players.

"They have nothing to lose, nothing to prove to anybody. They feel no fear. That might be a good point on our side. Hopefully, I'm right."

Again he touches the wooden table for comfort before diagnosing the one obvious downside caused by the changing of the old guard.

"This time there is a big transition in our side," he admitted.

"We're not going to see the Faldos, the Woosnams, the Langers, the Seves. In that sense it might be tougher for us because in those days pretty much we knew what the pairings were going to be.

"This year Mark James is going to have quite a job to figure that out."

One pairing which should not take too much soul-searching is Olazabal teaming up with golf's new sensation, 19-year-old Sergio Garcia.

It has all the makings of a dramatic partnership, the old golfing gunslinger guiding the precocious boy who in five dizzy months as a professional has shown he possesses some of the most lethal weapons in golf.

Garcia will get some idea of what it is like taking on the American big guns when he tees off here with Duval tomorrow.

Olazabal can't wait to see the boy who captured the hearts of golf fans around the world with his compelling final round at the USPGA back in action as the sport's best current global ambassador.

"It's a great thing to see a young kid of 19 doing so well, because they are going to show that on TV back home and that is going to encourage some other young boys to catch up with the game and practise harder," said Olazabal.

"That's going to be great for the game back home. The ratings for the USPGA on TV in Spain were really very, very high - even as big as a soccer match - and that is a great sign."

With that Olazabal flashed one of those captivating Latin smiles, which have been in such short supply of late. Now all he needs to do is put a smile back on the face of his driver.