Master plans for Augusta


Jose-Maria Olazabal has planned a gentle build-up to the defence of his US Masters title at Augusta National on April 6th to 9th. He will play only four tournaments over the next six weeks, three of them in the US.

Olazabal, who celebrated his 34th birthday earlier this month, also acknowledged the threat from world number one Tiger Woods during a teleconference from his home in Fuenterrabia, Spain, last night. And he alluded to swing changes he had made in a desperate attempt at improving his accuracy with the driver.

His last tournament appearance was in the Greg Norman Holden International in Sydney last week, when he slipped down the leader-board to finish joint eighth behind Lucas Parsons, after a final round of 74. Still, he refuses to accept that he is destined to be a perennially poor driver of the ball.

"I truly believe there is no reason why I shouldn't be a good driver and I feel confident I'm heading in the right direction," he said. "I spent a few days with John Jacobs (his coach) during the winter and I've been working on changing the grip a little bit to make it stronger. I find that puts me in a better position to become a more consistent driver.

"I hope to feel that improvement, not only at the Masters but all through the season. Maybe that will become the big challenge for me this year."

Asked to outline the key ingredients which go to make up a Masters champion, he highlighted two factors. "Long hitting is clearly an advantage at Augusta, because of the par fives and the need for a high trajectory," he said. "And without a doubt, the short game is the key point.

"If you look at the winners for the last few years, they have been in the top-three of the putting statistics, which tells the story. Tiger combines both these talents. Obviously we all know he is a very long hitter of the ball, but he is also very accurate off the tee. And his short game is really great.

"We've seen him hit wonderful shots around the greens - flop shots and chip and run shots. And his putting is really good. With those strengths, people see him as having the potential to dominate the tournament."

Olazabal, who has had only one finish outside the top 15 at Augusta since 1989 - he was tied 42nd in 1992 and missed 1996 because of illness - believes that playing the same course every year makes the top players feel more comfortable. But he added: "There is no doubt that, these days, Tiger is the player to beat. He's really full of confidence at the moment after his streak of victories."

But the Spaniard went on to sound the warning: "If I play as well as I can around the greens - and I'm quite good in that department - I might have the chance to do well again."

Would he be among those players intimidated by Woods? "Not really," he replied with a chuckle. "I just look somewhere elsewhere whenever he is teeing off."

Still, he made no attempt to hide his admiration for Woods. "Being so young, you have to take your hat off to him," he said. "In a way, we are all quite impressed with his achievements and I truly believe that this can only be good for the game of golf.

"It will make us all work harder and try harder to take our game to a higher level to compete against him. I really like that. I really like to play against the best and, at this moment in time, there is no doubt that he is the best. I like to have challenges and Tiger is giving us a really big one this year."

Olazabal's next assignment is in the World Matchplay at La Costa, after which he will compete in the Desert Classic in Dubai, where he made an emotional comeback in 1997, finishing 12th behind Richard Green. Then he takes two weeks off before returning to the US for the Players' Championship and the BellSouth Classic, prior to Augusta.