Olazabal to reveal cutting edge


GOLF/The Masters: In the main, "mulligans", reloading after a bad tee shot , are not only frowned on, but banned in the practice days at Augusta National. There are exceptions. On Monday, when Seve Ballesteros curled his first ball into the pine trees on the left of the first fairway to the roars of "fore", the Spaniard grinned that charismatic broad smile of his and, with nobody objecting, promptly stuck another ball atop a tee peg and hit it down the middle.

Time was when his compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal too would negotiate his way around a course to the not so musical accompaniment of a ball noisily clashing from one tree to another. Not so much any more, though.

His form this season tells its own tale of how he has corrected his waywardness - he is second on both the US Tour money list (with $1,503,473) and European Tour (with €476,124).

Apart from winning the Buick Invitational on the US circuit, he has three other top-10 finishes. In short, Olazabal has rarely played better golf.

No one is happier at Augusta National than someone who has won here before, a player who knows the nuances of the place and who likes the challenge. All of which makes Olazabal a very real contender in his quest for a third green jacket.

When he won his first US Masters in 1994, he did it by gradual progression - an opening round 74 left him in 26th place, and he progressed day-by-day to fifth, then second and then outright winner.

In 1999, when he added a second - just two years after returning from a painful foot condition that threatened his career - he was fifth after a first-round 70 and then in the second round he assumed a lead he was never to relinquish.

On Tuesday evening, Olazabal watched the skies and waited for the promised rain that never came.

"If the greens stay as they are, so fast, then I don't see anybody being able to stop the ball on some of them," he remarked.

His wishes were answered throughout the night, however, as the rain eventually arrived to make greens that had been so firm marginally more receptive.

Olazabal estimates he is hitting the ball farther than at any time in his career. More than 15 yards extra has been added to his armoury off the tee since a year ago. But it is not the extra length that he is seeking.

"I'm hitting it farther, but it is a lot straighter that I want to be hitting it. My aim is to keep the ball on the fairway, and that is my main concern. Distance is secondary," says the two-time champion.

While accuracy may at times have been a problem in the past, Olazabal's ability to find the fairway - while hitting it longer - means he heads into this year's Masters with an extra spring in his step.

"I've always said that whenever a course is lengthened that it is in favour of the long hitters, but you still have to go out and play your best.

"If you want to win this tournament, you have to have all departments of your game really sharp," he insisted.

The evidence to the jury would suggest that Olazabal heads into his 15th US Masters appearance with everything razor sharp. His putting touch is great; he is one of the best iron players in the world, and if he can keep his driving long and straight, then he will be a real contender.

His demeanour of recent days suggests that he knows this better than anyone.