A familiar face on the practice range at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was provoking lots of smiles, handshakes and back-slapping. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, largely absent from the European Tour for the past couple of years after suffering what at first appeared to be a chronic bout of rheumatoid arthritis, is playing in his second event of 2017 having missed the cut a week ago at the Qatar Masters with rounds of 75 and 77.
Perhaps more relevant given that the Spaniard turns 51 on Sunday, Olazabal will compete next week in his first PGA Tour Champions event, the Allianz Championship in Florida. It is a tournament he is looking forward to, albeit with realistic expectations.
“It has been a tough two years,” said the former Ryder Cup captain. “I haven’t been able to play golf at all. So just the fact of standing on the golf course is such a positive thing for me at the moment. That is far more important than my score right now. I’m not looking at the Champions Tour as something special, even if it is of course. For me, it is more special just being able to swing the club and play the game.”
Asked about any on-going health concerns, Olazabal was positive, hinting that his previous issues seem to be in check.
“My fitness is OK,” he said. “I am pretty much pain-free. My practice is going normally, and I have been able to work on my swing this winter. So I have no complaints in that department. My game is rusty, though. Last week in Qatar, I played a good nine holes, but the other nine was like day and night. Which is normal. I have to go through the process of regaining a little bit of touch. And then I have to get back into playing competitively. So there are a few steps for me to take before I can think about playing and scoring really well. It will take me a few weeks to get back into competition.”
Still, Olazabal’s swing on the range – particularly with a wedge in his hands – didn’t appear to be too different to the one that took him to 30 wins worldwide during his so-far 32-year professional career. But his short-term aims – he also intends to play PGA Tour Champions events in Mississippi and Atlanta in the weeks before and after the Masters – are more modest than victory.
“I am looking forward to seeing a lot of old and familiar faces,” he said. “I watch the television quite a lot. But everything will be new for me. I talked to Miguel [Angel Jimenez] and he says there is a more relaxed atmosphere and no cuts of course. But still it is very competitive. We never lose that. I look at most events and it seems like you have to be better than 15-under-par to have a chance. So I will need to play great golf. I have no really expectations though. At this time in my life, and what I have come through, I need to regain a lot of lost confidence. As well as my touch and competitiveness.”