Ernest Hemingway seldom wrote about golf, apparently unaware
that it provides plenty of gorings, maulings and knockouts. But
he might have written more if he had watched Jose Maria Olazabal.
No, the 30-year-old Basque has never run with the bulls in
Pamplona, despite living all his life just up the road in
Hondarribia, a suburb of the shimmering coastal city of San
Sebastian in northern Spain. While it's true that Olazabal is an
avid hunter and outdoorsman, that's not the point either. One
just imagines that if Hemingway had observed Olazabal in
competition--the Picasso-esque angles of his face, the brooding
intensity and, yes, the grace under pressure--golf might have
had its own version of The Dangerous Summer.
Literature's leading exponent of a minimal style would have
appreciated golf's leading minimalist. Despite his undisputed
status as one of the top international players in history,
Olazabal has never moved away from the confines of his hometown,
which is nestled in the Pyrenees. Unmarried and never involved
in a serious relationship, he still lives with his parents,
Gaspar and Julia, in a house off the 2nd tee at the Real Golf
Club de San Sebastian, the course where both his grandfather and
father served as greenkeeper. Only 400 yards away from the
two-year-old structure is the 250-year-old stone farmhouse where
Olazabal was born and raised.
In big-time golf's world of private jets, business empires and
corporate money, Olazabal has remained an ascetic. Partly
because he insists on playing a persimmon driver, partly because
he refuses to wear a visor, he currently has no golf club
contract. The most he has made outside of competition in one
year is about $1.5 million, a paltry sum compared with the
earnings of others of his stature. Olazabal won't do
golf-instruction articles for magazines because he believes they
are of minimal value. Although his wit is sharp and his English
almost flawless, he avoids interviews away from the course and
has an aversion to that wellspring of supplemental income, the
one-day outing. There was a good reason no one ever heard
Olazabal complain about being played out after he won the
Masters in 1994. Rather than chase money in the off-season, he
stuck to his routine of taking off during the late fall and
early winter to go bird hunting with his father. But once the
bell rings, no one burns hotter, as is indicated by the ulcer
Olazabal developed at 22.
June 9, 1996
"Chema [Olazabal's nickname] really doesn't care about financial
success," says his manager, Sergio Gomez, who has known Olazabal
since the latter was 12. "His only ambition is to be a good
player and to feel well in his own skin." So while many of his
peers fight burnout, Olazabal provides a low-overhead,
high-return model for long-term success. His approach is a
blueprint for fulfilling two criteria Hemingway had for an
artist: to concentrate on the work and to last.
Unfortunately, perhaps tragically, that second part has become a
big problem. Despite the care and diligence with which he has
managed his life, Olazabal's career as a competitive golfer
could be finished. In the last nine months an enforced hiatus
has caused him to miss the Ryder Cup, the Masters and, next
week, the U.S. Open. Olazabal now aims to return before next
month's British Open, but there is no guarantee that he will
play competitively in 1996 or, for that matter, ever again.
Olazabal has rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that produces
swelling and soreness in the joints. There is no known cure, and
while doctors believe they can regulate its effects, they warn
patients that some degree of pain almost always remains. In
Olazabal's case the disease has lodged in his feet, causing so
much discomfort that walking 18 holes four days in a row is
What makes Olazabal's situation cruelly ironic is that once he
stands up to a golf ball, he still has all the abilities that
made him a prodigy--by the age of 19 he had won the British
Boys, Youths and Amateur championships, and by 21 he had two
European tour victories and a 3-2 record in the Ryder Cup--and a
mature virtuoso whose 12-stroke victory at the 1990 World Series
of Golf stands as the most dominant single tournament
performance of the last 20 years.
Those who needed further proof that golf isn't fair have their
evidence in the misfortune of Olazabal, who refuses to publicly
discuss his health. Olazabal has not spoken to reporters since
his illness was diagnosed and has turned down repeated requests
for an interview by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. A special trip to
Hondarribia yielded only a brief conversation. Considering what
he has been through since pulling out of the 1995 Ryder Cup and
his uncertain future in the game, his reluctance to speak is
Olazabal probably hasn't had a day without pain in almost three
years. His troubles began when his right big toe started hurting
in 1993, eventually leading to a successful operation in early
1994 to have the toe shortened by a quarter of an inch. But a
year later, a small growth between the third and fourth toes of
Olazabal's right foot began to make walking a chore. The ailment
was originally believed to be Morton's neuroma, a form of nerve
inflammation, and by last year's U.S. Open, Olazabal was limping
so badly that he was twice warned for slow play. He continued to
play in preparation for the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, gutting out
respectable finishes at the PGA Championship, the International
and the World Series, although his rounds usually featured
mistakes over the closing holes as he tired.
After hobbling to a tie for 26th at the Trophee Lancome in Paris
last September, Olazabal went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester,
Minn., where specialists confirmed a preliminary diagnosis of
rheumatoid arthritis by two Spanish doctors. The only treatment
prescribed was rest and medication. Olazabal shocked the golf
world by withdrawing from the Ryder Cup and repaired to his home.
Doctors told Olazabal that through treatments with the drug
Methotrexate, which is sometimes prescribed for cancer, he would
realize 90% relief within seven months, but things haven't
worked out that way. Instead, for a while Olazabal's condition
continued to deteriorate. By October he was balancing on his
heels to keep weight off his toes. He bottomed out in December
when a heavy cold made him more vulnerable to the rheumatoid
virus. Unable to walk more than five steps a time, he was on the
verge of using a wheelchair. As a precaution against further
infection, Olazabal had his tonsils removed in January. "He was
very low," says Orlando Magada, the locker room attendant at
Real Golf Club de San Sebastian, who has known Olazabal all his
life. "Everyone was sad for Chema, but there was nothing anyone
"He had some moments of weakness, some very dark hours," says
Gomez. "He is not a person who gets easily discouraged, so it
was hard to watch. He has always been mature for his age, but
now he is even older beyond his years."
Olazabal, of course, is not talking about how dark it got or how
old he feels. His spokesman has been Gomez, who vividly
remembers Olazabal's fatalism when they emerged from the Mayo
Clinic. "Chema said, 'Well, Sergio, I'm happy I love designing
golf courses because that could be my future from now on.'"
Gomez says he wanted to try to persuade tournament officials to
allow Olazabal to play with a cart or a pony, which would
circumvent rules that forbid the use of "automotive
transportation." Olazabal turned down Gomez's offer to
intercede. "He told me, 'All we can do is wait,'" Gomez says.
And the wait has been maddening, particularly because Olazabal's
progress has been uneven. He originally had planned to return to
competition at the European tour's Dubai Desert Classic in
mid-March, but that was scuttled after he played a few 18-hole
practice rounds at home, during which he carried his own clubs
in a lightweight bag, and was unable to walk afterward. By the
week of the Masters, Gomez estimates that Olazabal had improved
no more than 30% since the diagnosis, well short of the progress
that doctors had predicted.
Since then, Olazabal has taken a more unorthodox course,
incorporating homeopathic medicine and a diet that cuts out,
among other things, caffeine, corn, onions, brussels sprouts,
chocolate and mackerel. The new regimen has allowed Olazabal to
play more golf with less pain. Although his feet begin to hurt
after 12 holes or so, the pain lasts for only a couple of hours
and does not linger into the following day. So far, Olazabal has
not exceeded three straight days of 18-hole rounds. When he
believes that he can play five days without undue discomfort, he
will consider himself ready to return.
"The real key will be when he is able to play the last part of
the round thinking about his golf and not his feet," says Gomez.
According to friends, Olazabal has taken heart from the many
letters of encouragement, and he was cheered when a British
spiritualist told him that he would either win or finish very
high in the British Open. When his 68-year-old grandmother,
Sabina, recently returned from Lourdes with a bottle of holy
water for him, Olazabal drank it.
"He sounds more like his old self, making jokes, especially at
his own expense," says Maria Acacia Lopez-Bachiller, a member of
the European tour's press office. "I remember once when we were
getting off a bus and I couldn't reach the handrail, he said,
'Don't worry, if you feel you are going to fall, just grab my
nose.' That's Chema."
Gomez has also noticed Olazabal's improving spirits. "The other
day he said, 'When I get back, they're going to be sitting on
their bottoms with surprise. I'm going to beat them. I'm going
to be better than I was.' I think he is like a guy who has
survived a serious accident--tougher and totally relaxed.
Before, he never spoke like that."
For the moment, we'll have to take Gomez's word for it. A visit
to the Olazabals understated stone, wood and tile home--named
Landagorrieta Berri (Basque for "New House Close to the Red
Field")--found the owner at home but predictably firm in his
decision not to emerge for photos or to answer questions.
"I'm sorry, but I have to stick with my promise," Olazabal said
through an intercom speaker connected to a wooden entrance gate,
his deep voice pleasant but unyielding. "I understand why you
had to come, but I can't go back on my word. We'll talk when I
come back. Thank you very much."
The Hemingway code all the way and the answer of a golfer who
intends to last.