Golf: The rocky road to Valderrama

The Ryder Cup selection saga has put the European Tour in a bad light. Andy Farrell charts a year of picking dangerously
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The Independent Online
Europe have the team they need, a classy mix of young talent and experience, to have their best chance of defending the Ryder Cup at Valderrama. The manner in which it was achieved, at times deplorable, illustrates the European Tour's ability to take a drama right to the edge of a crisis.

This is a sorry saga indeed. Its roots are in the qualifying system, which was retained against the players' wishes after the victory at Oak Hill two years ago. The point per pound system spread over 12 months with the top 10 qualifying automatically has been heaped with criticism, Colin Montgomerie calling it a "reward for good attendance".

Seve Ballesteros tried to get the number of wild cards increased from two before he took on the captaincy, and even as late as March. Then it was turned down on the legal grounds that the player who finished 10th on the list could sue. This week that man threatened to do just that.

Miguel Angel Martin admits to suffering from tendinitis in his wrists. At Loch Lomond, in July, he injured himself playing a shot from the rough. He was advised not to play at the Open, but desperate to secure a first Ryder Cup appearance, he played on. At the beginning of August he needed an operation and came out of plaster two weeks ago.

At the time of the operation, he issued a statement saying that should he remain in the top 10, he "probably would not be able to play in the Ryder Cup". It was assumed that Jose Maria Olazabal, who only returned to the game in March after a career-threatening foot injury, needed to finish 11th for automatic selection.

This would get the Ryder Cup Committee out of a sticky situation. For much of the summer, it looked like Ballesteros would have to pick two from Olazabal, Nick Faldo and Jesper Parnevik. The latter two are both based in America. With a poor season in the majors, Faldo came nowhere near qualifying.

Parnevik, however, with his Lancome Trophy win last September and his second place at the Open, would have been within reach of Martin had he been included on the points list. He was not because he had lapsed his membership of the European Tour to concentrate on improving his game in America, where he has finished second four times this year.

Quite how someone can be excluded from the qualifying, but later given a wild card is illogical and has never been fully explained. Had Parnevik been able to collect points and come back to fight for his place in the last few qualifying events, the Martin situation may not have arisen.

Nor would it had the requests for more wild cards been granted. Nor would it had Peter Baker holed a putt on the last green at the European Open to deny Olazabal a share of second place instead of third. Nor would it had Padraig Harrington shot a 66 instead of a 68 in the final round of the BMW International, or Paul Broadhurst a 62 instead of a 66.

But last Sunday night, Martin was still in the team. Encouraged by his recovery, his doctors said he might be able to play earlier than expected. Ballesteros phoned Martin and claims he said: "If I was one of your picks, I would tell you that I am not fit to play. But because I made the top 10, I want to play."

The conversation was witnessed by Ken Schofield, the chief executive of the PGA European Tour, Sandy Jones, the chief executive of the PGA, Richard Hills, the director of the Ryder Cup, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, Seve's No 2. But what was the context and was this said in Spanish or English? It would only have been natural for Martin to have said that since he had qualified, he wanted to try to see if he could play.

Schofield announced that Martin would have to undergo a fitness test the following Wednesday. On Monday, Martin received two faxes from Schofield on behalf of the Ryder Cup Committee. The first made no mention of the test, but asked him to stand down. "Our captain will require all 12 of us to be 100 per cent plus at Valderrama if we are to have the best opportunity to retain the Ryder Cup," the fax said. Olazabal (feet), Thomas Bjorn (ankle), Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer (both backs) might struggle on this.

The second fax informed Martin of the requirement to play 18 holes at Valderrama, a request Martin obviously could not fulfil. He refused to attend and replied saying: "You should have no doubt if I do not feel up to the demands of such an important event, I will be the first one to let everyone know without the need of the committee to ask me to withdraw." Martin was axed.

There was no arm round the shoulder, no "this is the biggest moment of your career, see how you are in two weeks, but anyway come down to Valderrama, we'll keep the Cup for you". Not in public, at least. "We tried to offer Martin everything," Ballesteros said, "but he went all the way."

If Ballesteros did not want to name two wild cards, including Olazabal, and a reserve, who would have virtually known for certain he was going to play and could prepare accordingly, for fear of upsetting the 13th man, he spectacularly failed when he revealed Olazabal and Faldo had been told they were already in. Parnevik only found out when Martin was withdrawn.

Schofield, who has promised that world rankings may be taken into consideration in future qualifying systems, takes the view that for every Martin, who earned just one cheque in the last three months yet stayed in the top 10, there is a Per-Ulrik Johansson or a Bjorn who secured their place in the last few weeks. "There is a balance by taking it over the long haul," he said.

It has been a bad week for the European Tour. A year after Collingtree Park, which was not meant to be allowed to happen again, the tour finds itself playing on substandard greens at the European Masters in Crans- sur-Sierre. September is a bad month. Three years ago, Faldo upped and left for the US Tour. Two years ago, the Ryder Cup qualifying was controversial. Last year Collingtree. This year both the qualifying and the courses have caused concern.

As two years ago, it needs a victory in the Ryder Cup to put a smile back on everyone's faces. But whether these events will be forgotten is another matter.