Ailing golfer tries to get back up to par
Two-time winner at Augusta José María Olazábal is still doubtful for this year31 March 2008
MARBELLA - It's been a long winter for José María Olazábal. Forced to abandon the US PGA in Oklahoma last August in agony after a return of the arthritis that has plagued him for 12 years, he says he feared he might never play again.
But after treatment by German specialist Wohlfart Müller at Pamplona's University Clinic, he was back over the weekend at the Andalusia Open, where he won a place at the US Masters in Augusta, Georgia in two weeks' time.
Out on the green at Marbella, the 42-year was clearly happy to be back in the game, enjoying the support of the crowd, and joking with his caddie.
"It's been better than I thought, and I'm more than satisfied," says a smiling Olazábal- his hands clasping his lower back to ease the pain. "The pain isn't any worse, and that's a good sign, but I have noticed that my lower back was hurting toward the end. I don't feel fantastic, but certainly better than I have over the last couple of months."
Olazábal, two-time winner of Augusta, says his arthritis returned last May, when his left knee swelled up. After liquid was removed, he began to play, even though at times he could barely walk.
But by August he had to stop. He didn't pick up a golf club until January this year, and progress has been slower than he hoped. He now ranks 132nd in the world, and has had to cut back on training, hitting barely a hundred balls a day in recent training sessions. Over the last month, he says it took him five days to finish 18 holes.
"I don't expect much: I miss playing, I miss pushing myself. Golf is part of my life, and not being able to compete is tough. The last couple of months have taken me back to that year and a half I was out of the game in the mid 1990s. It's not as bad now, but it is frustrating when you don't make any progress," he says.
Olazábal's last titles were the 2005 and 2006 Ryder Cup, with the Europe team. He hopes to be deputy captain of the European team this year, alongside Nick Faldo.
But if he is to return to form and win his third Augusta, which the Spaniard says is still uncertain, speaking after his two-over par finish at the Andalusia Open on Sunday, he admits that he is going to have to change his strategy: "I'll have to do what Tiger Woods has done," he says laughing: "focus more on quality than on quantity."
France's Thomas Levet won the Andalusia Open yesterday, beating 19-year-old Briton Oliver Fisher in a play-off.
[Copyright El Pais/ Juan Morenilla 2008]