AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jose Maria Olazabal’s phone flooded with well wishes from friends on Friday evening after he made the cut at the Masters for the first time since 2014.
“Oh, you made it. You made it,” Olazabal said with a smile, repeating the messages. “That was it. I think they were all in a state of shock.”
Unexpected, indeed, especially given that the 55-year-old Spaniard hadn’t played a competitive round since the Masters in November. When asked how it felt to shoot rounds of 75 and 71 to advance to the weekend, he said, “It’s like winning the event.”
Olazabal knows all about that. In April 1999, his confidence was low heading into the Masters until he received a pep talk that week from former champion Gary Player.
“Look at me,” Player said. “You have a great swing. Believe in yourself.”
Olazabal, who collected his first green jacket in 1994, did just that and won his second Masters. But injuries to his feet and arthritis that riddled his body sidelined him for extended periods, including in 2016 when he was unable to comb his hair, let alone swing a golf club, and forced him to miss the 2016 Masters.
These days, Olazabal plays sporadically on the PGA Tour Champions and accepts that he can’t keep up with the long bombers anymore. But like a pitcher who has lost something off his fastball and relies on guile and guts, Olazabal still possesses a wonderful touch that took him all the way to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“His short game is one of the best that’s ever been,” Phil Mickelson gushed. “He chips with a 4-iron, 6-iron, 8-iron, whatever he needs to get the ball chasing through the grass … I’ve always enjoyed watching his skill because I’m really not great at that shot, and he is the best in the world.”
To hear Olazabal tell it, his prowess around the greens has everything to do with geography and good coaching.
“Where I grew up learning golf, we have clay, and in wintertime, everything is wet and soggy. If you don’t catch the ball properly, you’re going to struggle. So, I think that was a good learning spot,” he said of the courses in his hometown of Fuenterrabía, Spain. “We had a teacher (twin brothers Jesus and Jose Arruti) that forced us to not use the sand wedge around the greens. He forced us to use other clubs, even 7-iron, and try to flop it with the 7-irons. I think that was a big help in developing the short game.”
Olazabal hit only six greens in regulation Saturday, but he plotted his way around Augusta National with all the experience of a veteran of 32 Masters starts. Olazabal was 1-under for the day when his third shot at 15 spun off the green and into the water and he made double bogey.
1999 Masters Champion Jose Maria Olazabal get his green jacket from 1998 champion Mark O’Meara at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Photo by Paul J. Richards/Getty Images
“That’s Augusta for you. Three feet here or there can make a big difference,” he said.
Bogeys at 16 and 17 followed and he signed for 75 and a 54-hole total of 5-over 221. But there is greatness in Olazabal yet and if his performance this week tells us anything, the 85th Masters won’t be his swansong.
“The game will dictate,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. The game will tell you when you have to stop.”