It is one thing to speak fluent Billy Bob and have to pronounce a Bernhard Langer now and again or the occasional Severiano Ballesteros, but this Josè María Olazàbal thing needs to get nipped in the bud right here and now. It is pronounced oh-luh-THAH-bull, yet almost nobody in a green jacket came within a three-wood of it last week at the Masters.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens said warily at the award ceremony on Sunday evening, "your new Masters champion...."
Stephens took a deep breath and tried to get a running start at it.
On Saturday the old boy with the Augusta press committee had a stab at it. What the old guy did, basically, was take a mulligan halfway through. "We have Josè...," said the voice on the media center public-address system, "We have Josè Oily...Josè Ollybobble."
Even the fans wrestled with it awhile. "Here comes that Josie Ohzzalobble," was heard once, not to mention, "That Othawzzaballa fella can roll that flat stick, cain't he?" One spring-hatted Augusta lovely finally just threw the fish back entirely and said, "Lookie here now, the Spanish boy has got aholt of the lead."
This particular problem shows no signs of going away soon. At 28, with a putting touch you would die for and a stomach made of cast iron, and with a whole lot of pronounceable U.S. players running way down at the bottom of the newspaper agate, Olazàbal could be a burr in Augusta underwear for years to come.
Sure looked that way on Sunday night, after he had wiped the hearts of two Americans off his spikes in the final seven holes and won the 58th Masters by two strokes, shooting a nine-under-par 279 and helping himself to a 41-regular green jacket, his first major and 50 million Spanish pesetas ($360,000). Olazàbal's victory was the third by a Spaniard since 1980—Ballesteros won in '80 and '83—and it was the sixth time in the last seven years that the winner's jacket has had to clear European customs.
What Olazàbal left in the Masters wreckage was the usual pile of discarded Yanks, a Shark with no teeth, and the dreams of every $25,000-a-year club pro who ever had to set out the centerpieces for the ladies' four-ball. Those dreams were riding on the tanned skull of Tom Lehman, a 35-year-old Walter Mitty whose career was going so badly four years ago that he interviewed to become the University of Minnesota golf coach. Might've taken the job, too, had they not insisted he rent cross-country skis out of the pro shop during the winter.
Besides, no matter how many Dakotas tours, Carolinas tours, USGT-T.C. Jordan-Hooters tours Lehman was floundering on, he always held out the hope that someday he could play big-time golf. And when somebody invented the Ben Hogan Tour, Lehman reinvented himself. He became the 1991 Hogan Player of the Year and then rejoined the PGA Tour, earning $579,093 in '92 and finishing a surprise sixth at the U.S. Open. In his first Masters last year, he sneaked in third.
But let's get serious. Here's a guy who had never won on the PGA Tour, and he was going to start with the Masters? Please. Nobody has made the Masters his first Tour win since Claude Harmon did it in 1948, when Mary, Queen of Scots, was still European champion.
Yet there was Lehman on Sunday at the 12th with a chance to lead again, at the 15th with a chance to stay close, at the 16th with a chance to get close again, at the 17th with a chance to tie and at the 18th with another chance to tie. Every time the ball would just....
Wait a minute. This is all making the whole week sound sort of fun, and Augusta National specifically rigged this thing up to be about as much fun as gout. This was flat-out the worst field in a major since they rationed rubber. Not only was the 86-man field chock-full of 12 handicappers, like Gay Brewer (84-79-See Ya) and Doug Ford (42-WD) and other former Masters champions with a permanent invitation, but also three of the best U.S. players were out: Fred Couples (herniated disk), reigning PGA champ Paul Azinger (cancer treatments) and Phil Mickelson (ski slope).
Then there was the antibirdie policy the National adopted. You want to tie the tournament record at last year's U.S. Open? Fine. You want to break the tournament record at last year's British Open? Lovely. You want to tie the tournament record at last year's PGA and obliterate the record at this year's Players Championship? Marvelous. But we'll have none of that at Augusta National. To make sure, the club kept the greens so short and dry that Greg Norman said they were "ice blue" and that the slope in front of the 15th green was "shaved smoother than a baby's bottom." Then the club put the pins on hills, banks and precipices. Two were in ponds.
"Those were some pins we've never seen before," said Payne Stewart after taking a 9 on Thursday on the par-5 15th, where the pin was stuck only five yards from the edge of a pond bank no golf ball in its right balata could resist skittering down. "In fact, I don't know if anybody's ever seen those pins before."
If you think you might enjoy this new pay-per-view capital punishment, you would have loved 15 on Thursday. Nolan Henke parred every hole but 15 and shot 77. His 10 there was a helluva score considering that he laid up with his second shot. He stuck his third shot just a few feet from the flag and then watched the ball spin back into the water. He skipped the middle man on his fifth shot, chunking it directly into the water, understandably flew his seventh shot over the back of the green, chipped back and two-putted. Were the Masters a Callaway (one hole gets thrown out), Henke might be your champion today.
The 15th also dined on a 9 by Costantino Rocca, delicious 8s served up by Steve Elkington and Tom Watson (who laid up too) and vats of 7s, including one from Davis Love III, who is supposed to have won this thing a couple of times by now but always ends up watching it at home on Sundays from his Barcalounger. By the end of Thursday, those players who weren't tripling their psychotherapy were nursing tiny victories. Hometown favorite Larry Mize led with a 68, one ahead of Tom Kite and Fulton Allem and two ahead of T.O.S.S. (The Original Swashbuckling Spaniard), Ballesteros, and five others, at 70. Ballesteros had the kind of opening round only he could hatch—two under on the front while hitting only three greens in regulation. Good luck making that work all week. He finished 18th.
Friday was also a laughfest, other than the fact that only six guys shot in the 60s and for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, neither Jack Nicklaus nor Arnold Palmer made the cut.
As for Seve Jr.—Olazàbal—he looked as if he were going to be an "also placing in the top 30," especially after his first-round 74. "I think to myself, I struggle," he said. Then, however, he got to within two shots of the lead with a Friday 67 and followed that with a Saturday 69 to lurk one back.
Naturally Europe wrung its hands, for Europe had been waiting to bronze Olazàbal since he was a boy, or at least since he came within a last-hole bogey of winning the 1991 Masters at age 25 and two shots of taking the British Open in 1992. Three years ago he was ranked No. 2 in the world with a bullet. He had major written on him like a logo. "It will happen soon," Ballesteros said in 1990, "or something's wrong."
For the last two years something did go wrong. Clubs got thrown, his caddie left him with his bag now and then, and petulance ruled. As his business manager, Sergio Gomez, says, "He was a man on his way to the slaughterhouse."
Olazàbal was literally born to golf, and when the golf goes sideways, so does the life. The son of a greenskeeper at Royal San Sebastiàn Golf Club, at the foot of the Pyrenees in the Basque country of Spain, he lived 35 feet from the putting green, 60 feet from the 9th green and the 10th tee. Olazàbal was so far from any other homes, any other kids, he had nothing else to do but spend his days chipping and putting little white balls into little black holes, hour after hour.
By age two he was hitting irons. By age six he had been made a member of the club with full privileges. At seven he won Spain's 10-and-under championship. By 19 he was a pro, and by 24 he had won the NEC World Series of Golf, in Akron, by 12 shots. From divot to flagtop, golf had lain at his feet. Now, here, after that 67 on Friday, it was back again.
Technically the tournament was still loosely owned by Mize, whose second-round 71 kept him one up over some serious men—Norman, Lehman and Dan Forsman, the greatest of these being Norman. So, Larry, how does it feel to have shark breath on your neck? "About like a 10-foot alligator chasin' you," said Mize.
On Saturday the alligator turned into shoes and a matching handbag. Norman, the man who made 10 birdies and an eagle over the first two days, the man who made 25 birdies in his last tournament, the man who set the last major and a half (1993's British and this year's Players) on their ears, the man who is now into Chinese mental exercise and martial arts and Zen philosophy, made zero birdies on Saturday on his way to a 75. He followed that up with a Sunday 77 and 23rd place. Think, grasshopper. What is the sound of one ball not going in a cup?
No, the Saturday-night leader was not the heroic Norman but the unlikely Lehman (pronounced LAY-man), by one shot over Ollie and two over Mize. Speaking strictly from a Lehman's perspective, what lay before him that night was nothing more than everything. "This is almost like a dream," he said.
Actually, nobody dreams this big. Lehman's biggest victory is tough to pick, but it might be his win at Reflection Ridge Country Club in Wichita, Kans., for which he won a pewter trophy that broke into two pieces in the trunk on the way home. This is a guy who once landed in South Africa to play the tour there with a wife, a bag of clubs and $100, total. "Most of my life, I've been broke," he says. You make it back from there, you're traveling.
So Sunday in Augusta dawned as if it were custom built for Lehman. He began the day by attending church services half a mile from Magnolia Lane. It was the Sunday after Easter, Faith Sunday. They spoke of John 20:24 and sang hymn number 163, Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know. As things turned out, none of it helped.
Still, as Lehman, Olazàbal and Mize approached Amen Corner on Sunday, where all good Masters begin, they were tied at eight under. Everybody else was pretty much a marker.
It was then, at that very point, that all those years—the friendless child, chipping, putting, chipping, putting—put Olazàbal in a green jacket and left Lehman and Mize dusted. Mize and Lehman kept making great shots. They simply stopped making great chips and sinking putts. Right there Olazàbal staged a Basque separatist movement. To wit:
The 12th: Mize, playing in the group ahead of Lehman and Olazàbal, stubbed a chip and made bogey. Lehman, needing to get up and down with a Texas wedge from behind the green, didn't. He pushed a seven-foot par putt. Olazàbal, needing to get up and down from off the green, holed a gimme. Ollie led by one.
The 13th: Lehman, needing to get up and down from a swale for a tying birdie, didn't. Ollie, laying up in front of the creek, made par. Mize, though, had made a two-putt birdie to tie again.
The 14th: Mize, needing to get up and down for par, didn't. Ollie, needing to get up and down for par from 35 feet behind the green, did. Again. Lehman parred. Ollie once more led both Yanks by one.
The 15th: Mize, needing to sink a five-foot putt for birdie, didn't. Ollie, needing a Freddy Couples Velcro miracle, got it. He hit a dainty three-iron onto the green that on Thursday would have rolled back down the bank and been taken out of there by a scuba diver this summer. "No way that ball stays up there on Thursday," said Jim Gray of CBS Radio, who was stationed at the hole all week. "They must have stopped mowing that thing."
How far was that from wet? somebody asked Ollie. "One foot, I think," he said. Vaya con Dios. Relieved, Ollie stepped up and dunked the 30-footer for eagle.
Lehman, who had hit a second shot to bring tears to your eyes and was only 15 feet away, just missed the edge of the hole for eagle. He tossed his putter, collapsed on the green and pounded the grass three times. When he looked up, the ball still wasn't in the hole. He settled for birdie. "I put my whole heart and soul into that putt," Lehman said. Ollie by two, with Mize now a footnote.
The 16th: Again, Lehman's four-iron was sweeter than Tupelo honey and stopped 12 feet from the hole. Again he blew the putt. "I know what I've got to do," Lehman said afterward. "Putt better under pressure." Hmmmm. Might have something there. Ollie parred. Ollie by two.
Lehman had one last chance to be a 6'2" Cinderella. Olazàbal drop-kicked everything on 17 and made a bogey. Lehman had a 15-foot birdie putt that would have tied him with Olazàbal but missed. Five big putts. None of them went in. Ollie by one.
Being smart and having the honor, Lehman hit a one-iron off the 18th tee to avoid driving the ball into the fairway bunker. Naturally he drove it 260 yards into the fairway bunker. Oh, great. Now he puts it in a hole. He made bogey and his only chance was that Olazàbal, who had knocked it over the 18th, might suddenly snap into a Jerry Lewis impression, skull his chip out and then maybe three-putt. Instead Olazàbal hit a tender little eight-iron chip that landed softer than Charmin and trickled 20 feet down the green to within five feet of the cup. He made the putt to win by two shots.
Potential, the heaviest word in the language, was now jubilation, the lightest. Usually, on big wins, Ollie does a little dance. Not at Augusta. "You must behave properly," he said later.
Stuck in his locker that morning was a prophetic note from Ballesteros. It read: "Be patient. Allow the others to become nervous. You are the best player in the world." He had succeeded, but it hadn't been easy. "All day, the food, it couldn't get through my throat," said Olazàbal. "In the end, I got it. I could not be a happier man."
Don't count on Olazàbal's suddenly showing up in your Vanity Fair hawking the scratch-n-sniff cologne. He refused to do the "I'm going to Disney World" thing afterward. His farmhouse just recently got a phone. He does not relish endorsements, isn't married, isn't close to being married, still lives with his parents and can't fathom a use for huge gobs of money. "What can a guy do with that kind of money at my age?" he once said. "I just put it in the bank."
However, back home at Royal San Sebastiàn, at the foot of the Pyrenees in that old farmhouse, his parents and friends knew what this win meant. They would walk outside, look to the night sky and see the three rockets shoot, as the three rockets always shoot at Royal San Sebastiàn when Olazàbal wins anywhere in the world. But this win, these rockets, this moment would be different. They would shine brighter, last longer and soar higher than any of the others.
It's true. You are a champion, Josè...