Ollie's no fluke 

Ollie's no fluke

It's a funny thing about Jose Maria Olazabal. He's won the Masters Tournament twice. Yet you never see his name listed among the pre-tournament favorites. He never gets any hype. Maybe it's because he keeps a low profile. Maybe it's because his driver is his kryptonite -- he tends to hit it crooked and short -- and the Augusta National Golf Club is supposedly for big-hitters only, a myth he keeps disproving.

What golf observers tend to forget is that Olazabal has one of the best short games in modern history. Spain's Seve Ballesteros carved a swashbuckling career by hitting long drives, winning a British Open from out of the parking lot and looking dashing while doing it. Olazabal, also from Spain, has the same scrambling ability but never quite played longball like Seve and certainly did it with less flair. Perhaps if Olazabal wins a third Masters Tournament this week, we'll start paying attention.

The record book suggests his Masters victories were no fluke. In addition to the wins in 1994 and 1999, he has also finished second, fourth, seventh and eighth (twice). He has five other top-20 finishes among his 17 appearances. The man can play this course, no doubt about it.

"Something about this place gets him fired up," said Davis Love, who shot 67 in Friday's second round while paired with Olazabal, who shot 69 and finished at 140, four under par, two shots behind leader Justin Rose. "He knows he has a chance here as soon as he pulls through the gates. He's relentless. It doesn't matter what kind of shots he hits or where his ball is, he never gives up. He plays a lot like Seve in that he's never out of the hole. That is fun to watch. He plays with a lot of determination and I think that helped me get focused."

His skills have been showcased in six Ryder Cups -- he was the guy against whom Justin Leonard sank The Putt in Brookline, but an overlooked fact is that Leonard only halved that match, he didn't win it. "I don't know why they underrate [Olazabal]," Love said.

A man who can chip and putt is always dangerous. In 16 Masters, Olazabal made the cut 15 times and has not ranked among the top 10 in putting only three times. Meanwhile, he has ranked among the top 10 in greens hit in regulation only once (sixth in 1995) and the top 20 in fairways hit only twice (20th in 1998 and sixth in 1989). In short, he gets by on guts, a few good iron shots and great putting that saves pars and turns even mediocre iron shots into birdies.

Olazabal, 38, was enjoying a fairly quiet second round Friday, even through 12 holes, until he eagled the 13th, then birdied the 14th and 15th. "That was my round," he said, laughing.

Don't laugh him off. When he won in 1999, he was struggling with his game during the opening round, when he went for the 13th green in two from the fairway with a 4-iron. He totally skanked the shot -- sorry, that's golfspeak for hitting an ugly shot. It actually landed short of Rae's Creek, and bounced -- incredibly -- across the water and onto the fringe of the green. He chipped in from there for an eagle, went on to shoot 70 and tie for the first-round lead and later win the tournament. A poor iron shot set him up for eagle.

Winners get the breaks. It happens, but it happens way too much at Augusta National for it to be a coincidence for Olazabal. It also played right into his hand on Sunday in '99, when the course played so firm, so fast and so difficult that hitting a green in regulation became problematic. The Masters had turned into a chipping and putting contest -- and it's no surprise who won that. Obviously, Ollie loves this course. Friday, he holed a 40-foot eagle putt at 13, dropped another nice putt at the 14th and hit it close with his third shot at the par-5 15th.

"It must be something with this place, I don't know," Olazabal said. "Parts of my game are pretty much like last week. The putting has not been all that great except for those two or three putts I made today. The driving has been average. I managed to hit more fairways than not but the quality of the tee shots is not what it should be for this course. I don't know if this course fits my game. The changes to this course have been huge since 1999 -- you really need to be a long hitter to do well around here. At the same time, it allows you to chip and putt around the greens. I think that's the only reason I've done so well."

The Masters is traditionally the cure for what ails him. He had a dismal year on the PGA Tour last year -- eight tournaments, no top-25 finishes. He did a little better in Europe, playing 19 tournaments, scoring four top-10s and finishing 52nd on the money list. For that matter, the Masters seems to be a cure for what ails European golf. There was buzz recently about the fact that no European players were among the top 10 in the world rankings. Then Padraig Harrington finished second at the Players Championship and inched back in. At the Masters, Euros were all over the leaderboard. There was an English Rose atop the standings for two rounds. Then Ollie, who was tied for second with Alex Cejka of Germany. Sergio Garcia of Spain and this year's Ryder Cup captain, Bernhard Langer of Germany, were at even par as a European renaissance appeared to be in mid-season form.

Another reason Olazabal often gets overlooked is that he has gone through long periods of mediocre play. His last tournament victories were two years ago -- the 2002 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in the U.S. and the 2002 Omega Hong Kong Open. He was left off the 2002 Ryder Cup team. He was a forgotten man in the mid 1990s when a foot ailment caused him to sit out of golf for more than 18 months. A German doctor gave him therapy treatments for his back, which finally relieved the foot problem in 1996 and allowed him to resume playing professional golf. He won the '97 Turespana Masters in his third tournament back and there was that great scene on the final green when he won the '99 Masters, his comeback complete, when he got a hug from another man who knows about comebacks, Greg Norman.

Olazabal's affinity for this course is much the same as most players' -- even though he's not a long hitter, he has dominated the par 5s. Coming into this Masters, he was 80 under par on the four par-5 holes and 54 over par on the other 14. He doesn't fit the Masters champion profile, yet he's won this thing twice and has put himself in prime position again to contend on the weekend even though he isn't feeling terribly confident in his game of late.

"It's going to take a longer spell than these two days [to be confident]," he said. "It's nice to have two solid rounds. It's nice to have a solid tournament. But I'm going to need a longer spell than a just a week."

Don't believe it. Ollie is poised, once again. How many times does he have to put on a green jacket before we're not surprised?

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