x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Time will tell if Olazabal will play his cards right

It came as something of a shock when Jose Maria Olazabal gave notice that he would prefer a less influential selectorial role as the Ryder Cup captain.

You can guarantee when Davis Love III is named today as the next United States Ryder Cup captain, he will not offer to surrender any of his cherished four wild-card selections.

Paul Azinger made it a condition of accepting the task of wresting the trophy back from the Europeans in 2008 that he needed to select one third of the 12-man team to boost his chances of ending a lean American period in golf's most glamorous matchplay competition.

Colin Montgomerie picked up on that crucial factor which had a significant bearing on the American success at Valhalla when he succeeded Nick Faldo to lead Europe into their nail-biting regaining of the cup at Celtic Manor in October.

Monty, a key figure in a European era of dominance, suggested when taking the job that he would like as many captain's picks as his counterpart Corey Pavin but eventually settled on a smaller increase from two to three.

Had Europe allocated four wild-cards to their captain, the awkward situation at the end of the qualifying period last autumn would have been avoided and a player in the world's top 10 (Paul Casey) would have squeezed into the line-up probably at the expense of Sweden's Peter Hanson.

So, it came as something of a shock when Jose Maria Olazabal, midway through his captain's acceptance speech here in Abu Dhabi, gave notice that he would prefer a less influential selectorial role than his predecessor.

He believes such a policy would see a better reflection of form throughout the qualifying year determining the European line-up, putting to one side the old adage that form may be temporary while class is permanent.

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 points.

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 claim a place on the flight to Chicago should push for the right to put his own stamp on the team to the greatest degree possible.

To a man, the big names who are competing in the Abu Dhabi HSBC championship have welcomed his appointment and the inference was clear from all of them that they trust him implicitly to make the right calls as and when they need to be made.

It is more than a coincidence that Olazabal, happily back to a reasonable level of fitness after his worrying attack of chronic rheumatism, plays the first two of what he hopes will be 16 rounds in this year's extended four-week Desert Swing in the company of Montgomerie this afternoon.

Maybe the victorious outgoing captain, a Ryder Cup stalwart since the start of Europe's golden era, will deliver a message to his replacement that this could be a rare error of judgement.

A less appealing duty for leading European Tour officials in Abu Dhabi this week was the need to call a disciplinary meeting into an alleged incident of cheating.

The tour's Tournament Committee delivered a unanimous verdict that Eliot Saltman broke the rules of golf in a minor tournament in Moscow last September when his playing partners accused him of incorrectly marking his ball on several greens.

The Scottish player is considering an appeal against yesterday's imposition of a three-month suspension from all tour events. It is to be hoped that any such appeal does not drag his sport through muddy waters.

Golf has prided itself through countless generations in its integrity. Consequently, incidents of malpractice on and off the course - certainly at profesional level — are thankfully rare and tend to become big issues whenever they occur.

As Lee Westwood, the world No 1, put it before his practice round ahead of today's tournament, golfers do not brandish imaginary yellow cards to referees in an attempt to get opponents punished. Nor do they dive to the ground feigning injury after a missed putt.

Westwood's assertion that there is no place for cheating in golf and that his so-called little book on etiquette is strictly adhered to is one to be applauded in a game where good behaviour is almost as big a requirement as good shot-making.

wjohnson@thenational.ae