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Olazabal: 'It was a struggle to stay standing for more than 10 to 15 minutes'

Olazabal: 'It was a struggle to stay standing for more than 10 to 15 minutes'

Olazabal: 'It was a struggle to stay standing for more than 10 to 15 minutes'

Despite the current pre-Masters plight of Tiger Woods, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves that by its non-contact nature, golf places less physical demands on the human body than most outdoor pursuits. As a consequence, it offers wonderful possibilities of a successful competitive return from even the most extreme injury or illness, provided the mind is up to the challenge.

Which points us towards extraordinary recent triumphs of the human spirit. It also highlights the truly remarkable nature of a comeback by an Irish golfing doctor, who was paralysed by a German shell during the First World War.

Only last June on Pinehurst No 2, 34-year-old American Erik Compton was joint runner-up in the US Open, through the benefit of a second heart-transplant received seven years previously. And regular observers of the PGA Tour can enjoy the inspiring sight of the 2013 Travelers Championship winner Ken Duke, who has played tournament golf with two titanium rods supporting his spine, since surgery for scoliosis nearly 30 years ago.

Yet there is only so much medical science can do. I had to undergo a full replacement of the left knee 12 years ago at a time when cruciate damage involving Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland was in the news. And I wondered how long a knee replacement would last in the cut and thrust of Premier League football. "Possibly a season," the surgeon replied.

The correct medical treatment, of course, is crucial to any chance of a recovery. And there is no greater story of US Masters courage and perseverance than that of Jose Maria Olazabal, the champion of 1994 and '99.

At one stage during the summer of '96, the pain in Olazabal's feet was so intense that he was reduced to crawling on his hands and knees, simply to go to the bathroom. That was before Dr Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, a Munich-based specialist in locomotion, discovered that the player's problems had to do with several misplaced vertebrae pinching the nerves of his lower back, rather than with the earlier diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

"Without him, I wouldn't be standing here," Olazabal said in his moment of triumph at Augusta National in 1999. "I think I won the tournament because of him."

As a measure of the mental battle he had to overcome, the Spaniard talked of situations where "it was a struggle to stay standing for much more than 10 to 15 minutes". Then there was the irresponsible gossip. "I was supposed to have cancer; at another time I had AIDS and the next thing I had put on 100 kilos and couldn't lace my shoes. That was supposed to be the reason I didn't come out of the house.

"It didn't hurt me but I thought it was funny that people should say these things without knowing the truth. They should be ashamed."

Then typically, he could see a positive aspect to his predicament, saying: "I have learned not to be so dramatic about things and also to be more patient than I was before."

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When his foot problems forced Olazabal out of the game for 18 months after the Lancome Trophy in September 1995, one of the few rivals to offer ongoing support was Greg Norman. "He was always in touch," said the Spaniard. "He wrote a note and was obviously anxious to know what my position was." Making the 1999 outcome supremely ironic as the Shark's last chance of winning a deeply-coveted green jacket.

Such informative comments are not available to us from the player whose recovery should have earned him an appearance as one of Ireland's first Walker Cup representatives in 1924. Fascinating fresh detail of his remarkable career, however, has been unearthed by Brendan Cashell, who gained international honours as a member of Malone in 1978.

With only the minor difference of 'Mc' rather than 'Mac' in their names, it is interesting that Athlone should have been the birthplace of two great Irishmen who might have known each other as children. One became a celebrated tenor and the other, born seven years later on May 8, 1891, was John Dillon MacCormack.

Recently I noted that JD, as he became known, won the Irish Close Championship on three occasions (1923, '24 and '27) as a member of Hermitage. As Cashell discovered, however, the most dramatic episode of his life occurred a decade earlier when, as a qualified doctor and plus-four handicap golfer, he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in the First World War.

We are informed that in 1916, "a German shell left the young doctor with spinal injuries and shell-shock so serious it was questioned if he could survive. He returned to Dublin where he remained paralysed from the waist down for five years."

Cashell goes on: "He was described as 'a pitiful sight, dragging himself along on crutches, with legs dangling helplessly.'" Where a German doctor was Olazabal's saviour, MacCormack owed his recovery to a visit in 1921 to a London surgeon who specialised in such cases.

With the aid of a rubber-lined steel corset to support his wasted muscles, JD began to exercise his legs in an exhausting regime which allowed him to stand once more. By the end of 1922, he was walking again and able to swing a golf club. And with steely resolve and painful practice, his return to competitive golf culminated in the Irish Close title the following summer.

He also became one of the longest hitters in these islands, a fact attributed to the hand and arm strength he would have acquired while wheel-chair bound. Yet he himself maintained: "It's all in the legs. Get the leg movements right and little will go wrong."

And what of the Walker Cup? With an address on Kenilworth Road, Dublin, he worked as a medical officer with the Department of Local Government, which declined to give him the necessary time off when he and Charles Hezlet were selected for the 1924 matches at Garden City, New York. So, Hezlet went as the lone Irish representative and MacCormack would never get another chance.

When reflecting on his Pinehurst performance, Erik Compton remarked: "It was very gratifying, all the hard work I've done for such a long time and overcoming so much."

Proving that rewards in sport are about much more than cups and cash.


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