x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A walk on the wild side for Europe at Ryder Cup

Olazabal's decision to make do with two picks for Ryder Cup team may be the wrong call.

Colin Montgomerie, left and his Ryder Cup successor Jose Maria Olazabal.
Colin Montgomerie, left and his Ryder Cup successor Jose Maria Olazabal.

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When Colin Montgomerie held court recently at Gary Player's charity tournament the Saadiyat Beach Club in Abu Dhabi, he threw out what was initially construed as a flippant comment on the Ryder Cup selection process.

The Scot, one of the leading performers for Europe as a player - he never lost a singles match in eight appearances - captained the team to their victory over the United States last year under what he considered to be the handicap of being able to select only three of the 12 players.

Let the captain pick all 12, was Monty's message a week after Jose Maria Olazabal had been confirmed as his successor at a European Tour meeting in the UAE capital.

And he was deadly serious, making the point that a sensible captain would be guided by the world rankings and Race to Dubai money list rather than be dictated to by the respective tables.

All of which makes Olazabal's counter assertion, that he will make do with only two wild cards when the time comes for him to complete the line-up of passengers on the flight to Chicago to defend the trophy next year, so baffling.

Olazabal, the unanimous choice of the European players to play the leading role in Medinah, Illinois next year, commands enormous respect in the locker rooms around the world.

So his views should be challenged with caution, especially on issues involving the Ryder Cup in which he has been a productive accumulator of European points especially in a marauding all-Spanish partnership with Seve Ballesteros.

But he may have got this one wrong.

An active touring professional like him with so much knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of all those battling to be a part of golf's most glamorous matchplay competition should push for the right to put his own stamp on the team to the greatest degree possible.

That is what Montgomerie did when accepting the captain's job. The canny Scot picked up on the crucial demand made by Paul Azinger, the American captain for the 2008 tussle, which had a significant bearing on his men regaining the trophy at Valhalla.

Azinger appreciated that form and confidence going into the match were key issues and that the captain should be given maximum scope to capitalise on an eye-catching late run by players on the wrong side of the qualification line.

He thus made it a condition of accepting the job that the rules be changed to give him four picks instead of the previous two.

Montgomerie wanted four when his turn came to try to win back the trophy. He accepted that change had to come gradually and settled for three. Now Olazabal has put Europe back to where they started with two picks, albeit with a slight tweaking of the qualification tables - a decision he might live to regret.

Last time round, Europe were in the ludicrous position of having to leave Paul Casey on the sidelines, a player ranked in the world's top 10.

Had Montgomerie had the greater flexibility of selection, that situation would surely have been avoided. That unsatisfactory situation is just as likely to arise again next year. If the competition proves to be as tight as it was at Celtic Manor in Wales when Europe's one-point victory was sealed by Graeme McDowell in the final rubber of the 12 singles, the captain's belief in the adage that the league tables rarely lie might go down in history as a misguided move.

The sport's second most glamorous matchplay competition starts today when the first of the season's World Golf Championships - the Accenture - gets under way in Arizona when Englishman Ian Poulter bids to repeat his success of last year when he defeated his compatriot Casey in the final.

The tournament, open to the world's 64 leading players, brings the top ranking into focus again as Lee Westwood seeks to hang on to the honour in the face of a renewed challenge led by Germany's Martin Kaymer.

Westwood has proved himself a solid matchplay exponent in the Ryder Cup but this individual event has not served him kindly as he has managed to get past the second round only twice in 10 attempts.

As world No 1 he could have expected his 64th-ranked opponent to be less formidable than Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who won this event in 2007 and has been a regular at the top end of the rankings table until falling on hard times over the last season or so.

If that match fails to produce the shock of the first round, it might come through the rejuvenated Thomas Bjorn who beat a high-class field in the Qatar Masters last month. The Dane's first-round opponent? The fading force of Tiger Woods.

 

wjohnson@thenational.ae