European tour veteran Barry Lane shook his head and smiled after José María Olazábal one-putted four of the first five greens in his return to tournament golf. "You sure you haven't played for 18 months?" Lane asked, grinning. Last week's Dubai Desert Classic showed that maybe it's time to scratch Olazábal from the disabled list and put him on the active roster. Sure, there's still a faint limp from the foot ailment that threatened to cripple him and prematurely end a promising golf career, but it was barely noticeable as Olazábal played his way into contention with a sparkling third-round 65 and eventually tied for 12th at 279, nine under par.
Olazábal's feet still aren't 100%, but his skills, on display for the first time since the Trophée Lancôme in Paris in September 1995, showed no signs of rust. That was the big surprise in Dubai—not only is Olazábal back, a fairly stunning development following a drawn-out medical saga, but he played pretty well. "We thought there was no chance of Ollie coming back," said Spain's Domingo Hospital, the second-round leader. "After his first diagnosis, everybody said he was going to end up in a wheelchair."
The return of Olazábal would be good news for the European Ryder Cup team, which could use some since its captain and spiritual leader, Seve Ballesteros, is hard-pressed to break 80 these days—he actually shot a second-round 84 in Dubai. A comeback by Olazábal would also be good news for Masters fans. Off his Dubai success, Olazábal is likely to tee it up in Augusta, where he won in 1994, although the introverted 31-year-old speaks cautiously, when he speaks at all. "What happens now? I'm going home to rest," Olazábal said on Sunday. "I'm thrilled with how the week went, and I hope to play in Portugal in 10 days. The Masters? We'll have to see. That's a very hilly course and would be particularly killing. But who knows? The chances are a great deal higher than they were." As for his feet, Olazábal had two things to say. One: "I'm not talking about them." Two: "They are no worse than they were yesterday."
Olazábal's return apparently was made possible by Dr. Hans Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, a German homeopathic specialist who determined that the pain in Olazábal's feet came from a lower back hernia and not rheumatoid arthritis, as doctors at the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere had said. Olazábal played 18 holes on Feb. 24 and 25 in Dubai, then practiced for five hours each day, taking only a five-minute break every hour. He birdied three of the last four holes in his opening round for a head-turning 69 at the Emirates Course. "For him to break 70 on a good golf course is tremendous," said Colin Montgomerie, Europe's top money winner the last four seasons. "The boy's got a little something extra, hasn't he?"
Olazábal shot 74 the next day and made the cut despite a triple bogey at the 18th hole, where he hooked his tee shot into the trees and splashed a third shot into a pond. "I wanted to play four days, that was my ambition," Olazábal said. "It was tough at times. I'm struggling to shape my shots."
He didn't struggle on Saturday when he birdied the first three holes, went eight for eight on six-foot putts and shot the 65, moving within five shots of Ian Woosnam's lead. The highlight came at the 18th, where he had made the snowman the previous day. A good drive left him with 230 yards over the water to the front of the green. "I was saying to myself, Please, God, don't let him reach for the three-wood," said caddie John Mulrooney. Olazábal pulled the three-wood. "Are you certain that's the club?" Mulrooney asked. "Certain," Olazábal replied.
A gust of wind made him back off once, then he addressed the ball again and whistled a low, wind-cheating shot that carried the water with 15 feet to spare and stopped 45 feet from the hole. "I knew it was tight, but it was a good test, the sort of shot that gives you confidence," said Olazábal, who two-putted for birdie.
Greg Norman, who was making his first start of the season and wound up sharing second with Woosnam when Australian lefty Richard Green birdied the first hole of a three-man playoff, chuckled when he saw Olazábal's name moving up the leader board on Saturday. "I said to myself, Once a competitor, always a competitor," Norman said.
A bogey at the par-5 3rd hole on Sunday kept Olazábal from coming close to winning—something he admitted he wasn't ready to do—but a closing 34 made his showing respectable. The same couldn't be said of the play of Ballesteros, Olazábal's longtime Ryder Cup partner. He opened with a 74, followed with the disastrous 84 and missed the cut. His 158 was 14 over par and better than only two other players. Ballesteros had finished 147th among 160 players two weeks earlier in Sun City, South Africa, and was 133rd out of 158 in Johannesburg the week before that. "It's painful to watch," says Peter Mitchell, who was paired with Ballesteros in Dubai. "If it was me, I would want to cut my wrists."
Instead, Ballesteros headed to Germany and an appointment with Dr. Müller-Wohlfahrt, who will examine Seve's aching lower back. "I feel sad," Olazábal says. "He has to feel it. Deep down, I'm sure he'll overcome it, but he has lost confidence."