By Tim Wharnsby
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - In a perfect world, Masters rookie Rafael Cabrera-Bello would have played three practice rounds with two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal this week to prepare for his first tournament at Augusta National.
But Olazabal, 50, is absent. He withdrew last month because of a rheumatoid arthritis condition that has kept him from competing since his second round at last year's Masters.
Cabrera-Bello, however, has kept connected to his fellow Spaniard, firing a few strategical questions Olazabal’s way via texts with plans on posing more.
The 31-year-old Cabrera-Bello has already asked Olazabal for counsel on the way he should shape shots into different pin locations.
“He texted me to congratulate me when he knew I was in,” Cabrero-Bello told Reuters. “I told him I would be hassling him for advice inside the ropes and for his memories of his championship moments.
“He’s been very helpful and nice about this.” The Masters has held a special place in Spanish golf. The late Seve Ballesteros won in 1980 and 1983. Olazabal followed up with Green Jackets in 1994 and 1999.
Sergio Garcia has three top-10s in 17 Masters, while another Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jimenez, has been good for four top-10s, including a fourth-place finish in 2014. Jimenez, 52, did not qualify for the Masters this year. “I’ve thought about Ollie a lot more because he’s won here, but (Jimenez) is a really good friend,” Cabrera-Bello said. “I will reach out to him, too.” Cabrera-Bello played nine holes with 2003 champion Mike Weir of Canada on Tuesday and toured Augusta National with Garcia on Wednesday. The Spaniard received his Masters invitation two weeks ago when he moved into the top-50 of the world rankings after his consolation final 3&2 win over Rory McIlroy at the WGC-Dell Match Play. Cabrera-Bello ended last year ranked 114th but ascended to 33rd after a strong start in 2016.
He enjoyed back-to-back runner-up finishes at the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic and Qatar Masters, and strong U.S. performances at the WGC-Cadillac Championship (tied for 11th), WGC-Dell Match Play and Houston Open (fourth). “It’s more perfect than perfect,” Cabrera-Bello said of first impressions of Augusta National. “I was almost 10 the first time (Olazabal) won and almost 15 the second time. Obviously, we always dreamed about playing here and dreamed about winning here. I feel really honored to be here.”
(Editing by Larry Fine)