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Veteran in surprising battle

Jose Maria Olazabal is finishing strong, a must for a 2005 tour exemption.

JOHN SCHWARB
Published October 31, 2004

PALM HARBOR - This part of the game seems as if it should be for someone else. Fighting through the last full-field event of the season desperately trying to remain exempt, that's supposed to be for the younger, for the less talented, certainly for those players without two majors to their name.

But Saturday at the Copperhead course at the Westin Innisbrook Resort, Jose Maria Olazabal continued to plod along, aiming for the magic number of 125 on the money list.

The Spaniard carded what could turn out to be a key round, shooting 67 to move from a tie for 15th to a tie for fifth at 8-under par in the Chrysler Championship.

"I'm fighting the best way I can," said Olazabal, 38, a six-time winner on tour, including the 1994 and '99 Masters.

Problem is, the five-year exemption from the '99 Masters runs out this year, leaving Olazabal no recourse from his No. 146 spot on the money list. Last year, finishing 132nd was not an issue with the exemption.

This year, he must crack 125 or face not having a regular home on the tour.

"You only have to look at it once and you know where you're standing and what you need to do. I'm in a delicate situation," Olazabal said.

He says that situation is stressed by the state of his game. Through three rounds at the Chrysler he is 65th out of 73 players in fairways hit (21 of 39) and tied for 38th in greens in regulation (36 of 54).

Yet Olazabal's calling card has always been his short game, and for the week he is tied for fourth in putts per round (27.3). In the third round he missed six greens but got up and down on five.

"Best chipper I've ever seen," said Briny Baird, who played with Olazabal on Saturday.

Should Olazabal maintain his position on the leaderboard today, he would finish a safe 121st on the money list. If not, Olazabal said he won't try the tour's qualifying tournament. He would play in Europe and in the states when possible.

"It's surprising, but yet not surprising. It's a difficult game and it doesn't take much to be off your game," Baird said. "Maybe it's injury-related, I'm not sure. I would have to think it is, he's too good of a player for that."

Olazabal said there are no injury issues like the foot problems that plagued him years ago. Like many outside the top 125 struggling to break through, it's just golf issues.

"I'm not feeling good about the game, I have to say," Olazabal said. "It's more down to heart and grinding than it is good swinging of the club."

So far, heart and grinding are working.

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