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 José María Olazábal.
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 Sebástian in northern Spain. While it's true that Olazábal is an avid hunter and outdoorsman, that's not the point either. One just imagines that if Hemingway had observed Olazábal 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, Olazábal 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 Sebástian, the course where both his grandfather and father served as greenkeeper. Only 4(K) yards away from the two-year-old structure is the 250-year-old stone farmhouse where Olazábal was born and raised.
In big-time golf's world of private jets, business empires and corporate money, Olazábal 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. Olazábal 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 Olazábal 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 Olazábal developed at 22.
"Chema [Olazábal's nickname] really doesn't care about financial success," says his manager, Sergio Gómez, who has known Olazábal 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, Olazábal 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, Olazábal'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. Olazábal 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.
Olazábal 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 Olazábal's case the disease has lodged in his feet, causing so much discomfort that walking 18 holes four days in a row is impossible.
What makes Olazábal'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 Olazábal, who refuses to publicly discuss his health. Olazábal 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 understandable.
Olazábal 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 Olazábal'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, Olazábal 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.