For the third time in his distinguished career, two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal will miss the year’s first major because of health issues. The 50-year old Spaniard, winner at Augusta National in 1994 and 1999, hasn’t played competitively since the second round of the 2015 Masters – he withdrew on the eve of the following week’s Spanish Open - and is believed to be suffering from a form of rheumatoid arthritis.
In a statement, Olazabal – the last European to win the Masters - expressed his regrets at missing an event where he has eight times finished in the top-ten.
“I am sorry to announce that I’m unable to attend this year as I’m not feeling well,” said the former European Ryder Cup captain. “The Masters is very special to me and walking up Magnolia Lane gives me a peace of mind like nowhere else.
“I have wonderful memories since my first time at Augusta in 1985 as an amateur, not just of the two wins but from the great experiences that make it a unique event.”
One of the most openly emotional figures in the game, Olazabal also shared some of his most cherished reminiscences from his 27 Masters appearances.
“I have lovely memories of all the practice rounds with Seve (Ballesteros), the ‘Mechanic (Miguel Angel Jimenez) and the other Spaniards,” he continued. “But there are two special memories with Gary Player and Tiger Woods that have left their mark on me and I will never forget.
“At Tuesday’s champions dinner in 1999, Gary asked me how I felt and I answered, ‘my game is so-so.’ Looking straight into my eyes, he said, ‘you must believe in yourself.’ With his arms open wide he said, ‘Look how old I am but I feel like a rock. You must believe in your game and the rest will come.’ On Sunday I won my second green jacket.
"In 2002 I played the third round paired with Tiger. On the 18th I told him, ‘It’s been a pleasure playing with you, what an exhibition.’ He thanked me. He played to perfection and won the tournament. I know it was also a very special moment for him, as he has declared on several occasions."
Typically, Olazabal was too modest to share with the world the nine-holes he and Ballesteros once played with a young Tiger at Augusta National. Having watched in awe what the two Amigos – the most successful partnership in the history of the Ryder Cup – were able to do on and around the greens, Woods made his excuses before heading to the range to practice what he had witnessed.
Still, all of the news is not bad. After six months away from the game completely, Olazabal started hitting balls in January. He is now able to hit balls for three hours each morning and putt for about 45 minutes.
“I’m feeling better,” he said. “I have regular tests and they show improvement, which is a good sign. But the main thing is to get rid of pain. It’s a slow process and I have to be patient.”
Should that steady progress continue, it surely won’t not be long before he can make his debut in senior golf. It’s just a shame that the Masters comes too soon in his recovery program.