Olazabal puts reign of Spain back over Masters with win


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He had been considered the next great foreign player for nearly a decade, the successor to his friend, mentor and fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. But the prodigy never became a full-fledged star.

Until last night.

Playing a bit more conservatively than his world-famous countryman did in winning here in 1980 and 1983, Jose-Maria Olazabal outlasted PGA Tour journeyman Tom Lehman on the most famous homestretch in golf -- the back nine of Augusta National -- to capture the 58th Masters.

With a 3-under-par 69 yesterday and four-round total of 9-under 279, Olazabal beat Lehman by two shots and former Masters champion Larry Mize by three to win the first major championship of his career. The victory by Olazabal was the sixth here in the past seven years by a foreign player.

Olazabal made one great decision to stay in contention by not trying to imitate Ballesteros, when his drive at the par-5 13th rolled under some trees and he hit around the obstruction instead of trying to hit through it. He also made one memorable putt, a 30-footer for eagle 3 at the 15th that would give him a two-shot lead and ultimately the victory.

"What can I say? It's like a dream come true," said Olazabal, 28, who earned a first-place check for $380,000 and a treasured green jacket. "I have worked very hard to achieve this, and now I've got it. I cannot be a happier man."

And Lehman, 35, could not have been more disappointed. He played admirably under the pressure -- this was his second Masters, and it was the first time he had led a PGA Tour event going into the final round -- but Lehman came close to breaking through with a career-making victory.

Lehman, who came into the round one shot ahead of Olazabal and two ahead of Mize, stayed in the lead or shared it through 11 holes. A bogey on the par-3 12th hole made him play catch-up the rest of the day. Mize bogeyed that hole earlier, birdied No. 13 to tie Olazabal, then fell out of the lead for good when he made bogey at the 405-yard 14th and failed to make a 7-footer for birdie at 15.

"I have mixed emotions," said Lehman, who finished tied for third last year. "I feel like I played very well, but I didn't get much out of my round. I couldn't get the putts to fall. . . . I feel like I played a lot better than I scored."

Said Mize, 35, who won here in sudden death in 1987: "The putt at 14 was a very big momentum stopper for me. I still felt I had some momentum, but I couldn't get it going."

It was the 18th professional victory for Olazabal, who turned pro eight years ago, and his third win on the PGA Tour. He played nearly flawless golf to win, with two bogeys in the last three rounds, and his opening-round 74 was the highest score by a Masters champion since Jack Nicklaus won eight years ago.

Not only did it erase the memories of Olazabal's own final-round disappointment here three years ago, when he bogeyed the last hole to lose by a shot to Ian Woosnam, but it also meant he finally had answered the heavy expectations placed on him from an early age.

"Of course, it's going to take a lot of pressure off me," said Olazabal, who grew up next to a golf course in Fuenterrabia, Spain, where his father, Casper, was a greenskeeper. "I knew that winning the Masters tournament is a special thing. I knew I could handle the pressure. Two or three years ago, I really did have it in my mind that I could win a major."

He played confidently throughout the afternoon, and Olazabal said he began think about winning after his eagle putt at 15. Having saved par at 13 after hitting his drive under a clump of pine trees -- then carefully picking the needles away to give himself a better chance before playing into the fairway -- Olazabal found his ball at the par-5 15th barely on the fringe in front of the green.

With Lehman sizing up his own eagle chance from 15 feet, Olazabal stepped up and rolled the putt softly in, just grazing the flagstick on the way down. Lehman then missed his putt, as the ball rolled precipitously close to the right edge, the first of three straight birdie putts he narrowly missed.

"He's a great putter and he has a great short game, so I wasn't that surprised he made it," said Lehman, who tapped in for birdie, but still found himself behind by two shots. "It just motivated me. I felt like I made a great putt myself. I was shocked it didn't go in."

Lehman had one more chance, when Olazabal made his first bogey of the round at the par-4 17th hole. But using a 1-iron at 18 instead of a driver in order to avoid a fairway bunker, Lehman cranked out a 265-yard drive -- right into the bunker.

Olazabal kept the door open when he put his approach 15 feet over the green and 80 feet from the pin. But Lehman, with an unsteady stance, didn't hit a great recovery from the bunker and pitched weakly onto the green, 18 feet from the cup. Lehman missed the putt for par -- his third bogey at 18 in four days -- and Olazabal ended it with a 6-foot par to win.

Asked about why he used a 1-iron at 18, Lehman said: "During all the practice rounds, my drives went into the furthest bunker. Since the pin was in the front, I figured it would take a 1-iron and an 8-iron to get there. It was the smart thing to do. I just hit the 1-iron much too far. I normally hit it 240. If I had to do it again tomorrow, I'd do it the same way."

Olazabal has played most of his career in the shadow of Ballesteros, but he also has been helped by a player whose skills seem to be fading with a chronic bad back. Ballesteros, who celebrated his 37th birthday here yesterday, left his protege a note of encouragement in the locker room before yesterday's round.

It said: "Be patient. You will win. Wait for the pressure to get to the other guy. You are the best player in the world. Seve."

Olazabal was certainly that in the 58th Masters. And last night, on the most famous homestretch in golf, the prodigy became a star.

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