Olazábal, who turned 51 on Sunday, is set to make his debut on the Champions tour on Friday at the Allianz Championship after more than a year’s absence from the game. After the second round of the 2015 Masters, he was sidelined by arthritis until he played on the European Tour late last year.
“I could not walk at all,” said Olazábal, a two-time Masters champion and a former Ryder Cup stalwart. “I think that was the lowest point.”
After he withdrew from the Masters two years ago, Olazábal pulled out of the Spanish Open the following week. He could not comb his hair, let alone swing a golf club. Olazábal tried anti-inflammatories and cortisone shots, to no avail, and endured countless tests. He spent the next 18 months feeling like a prisoner in his home in Fuenterrabía, Spain.
“It’s not rheumatoid, it’s not psoriatic, but they couldn’t put a name on it,” he said.
It was not the first time that pain sidetracked his career. After limping around golf courses with a mysterious ailment in his right foot, Olazábal missed the 1995 Ryder Cup while taking an 18-month absence from competition. He stayed in bed for months.
His feet hurt so badly the pain nearly made him cry. In his home, he had to crawl to the bathroom, which was only nine feet from his bedroom. He thought he might end up needing a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Olazábal did not begin to feel better until a German doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, concluded that the pain was coming from his back, not his foot. Dr. Müller-Wohlfahrt, a homeopathic specialist, determined that Olazábal had a biomechanical problem caused by a hernia between the fifth lumbar and first sacral spinal bones.
He asked if Olazábal would be willing to try a nontraditional treatment. Olazábal’s longtime manager, Sergio Gomez, said of his client, “He would jump out of a window if it meant he would get better.”
After receiving injections of iron, amino acids and shark cartilage, Olazábal was able to resume playing. In his third start after returning in 1997, he won the European Tour’s Turespana Masters, burst into tears of joy and thanked his doctor.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be standing here,” Olazábal said at the time.
Olazábal won six times on the PGA Tour and 23 times on the European Tour before being elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.
There are pictures of Olazábal, whose parents and grandparents worked at Real Golf Club in Fuenterrabía, with a club in his hand at 14 months. He was seemingly born with a free-flowing, technically perfect swing that was the envy of all.
Paul Goydos was among the curious players who stopped in his tracks to watch Olazábal hit practice shots this week.
“They were all as pure as snow,” Goydos said.
Bernhard Langer, a former Ryder Cup teammate, said Olazábal would have won even more tournaments if he had been healthy.
“You might say, ‘Why?’” Langer said. “He’s got one of the best putting strokes. His short game is, you know, every bit as good as Seve’s,” referring to the Spanish golfing great Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011.
“He’s a great iron player,” Langer added, speaking of Olazábal. “The only thing that sometimes held him back winning certain events was his driver.”
In April 1999, Olazábal’s erratic driving had damaged his confidence. So Gomez asked Gary Player to speak to Olazábal at a gathering of international players on the Monday before the Masters.
“Look at me,” said Player, who was 63 at the time. “I’m strong as steel. You have a great swing. Believe in yourself.”
Player repeated the words several times with growing conviction. Inspired, Olazábal won his second green jacket that week.
But he continued to be plagued by crippling pain. He played only six tournaments in 2008 and three times in 2010. This time, Dr. Müller-Wohlfahrt could not help. Medicine alleviated the pain until it returned with a vengeance in 2015. Olazábal could not unscrew the cap from a bottle of water or raise a glass.
It seemed his career had come to another abrupt halt. As much as it pained him, he passed the time watching golf on television, paying special attention to the 50-and-over players.
“The only time that I left home mainly was to get some physical therapy and to see the doctors, and that was it,” he said. “I couldn’t do even a normal life at all.”
For all his manifold attributes, toughness may be Olazábal’s greatest strength. In December 2015, he was prescribed Humira, a drug that is used to combat inflammation in people with any of a number of autoimmune diseases. In May, Olazábal started hitting balls again. He returned to the European Tour by October.
Since coming back, he has missed the 36-hole cut at all four of his starts, including tournaments the past two weeks in Doha, Qatar, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
But now Olazábal is looking to give a lift to the senior tour. He said it might take time for his game to return to the top level.
Despite all the adversity he has faced, Olazábal has maintained a positive outlook. When asked if he felt he had been robbed of much of his prime, he shook his head.
“No, no,” he said. “I’ve dedicated my life to what I love. I’ve actually managed to do quite well, so in that regard I don’t think that the sport of golf owes me anything or life owes me anything. I consider myself a very lucky person in that regard.”
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