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Smyth on captaincy politics: "It doesn't pass the smell test for me"

A unified front. Thomas Bjorn, George O;Grady and Richard Hills flank Paul McGinley in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Picture: Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ieWhen on one European golf’s most respected and admired veterans says that the Ryder Cup captaincy selection process “doesn’t pass the smell test” you sit up and take notice.

When he’s referring to the manoeuvring of Darren Clarke against fellow Irishman Paul McGinley in the recent race for the Gleneagles job, you suspect the fallout could be serious for the Ulsterman’s chances of getting the captaincy in 2016.

Just hours before McGinley was named as skipper, Des Smyth appeared on Ireland’s TV 3 to speak about his unhappiness at the way the entire affair had been handled.

Europe’s selection process was something he touched upon on this site in December, but the normally affable Drogheda man appeared even more ill at ease when discussing Clarke’s late changes of heart regarding his own ambitions for 2014 and the possibility that McGinley might be denied at the last minute.

Before officially withdrawing from the “race” at the 11th hour, the Ulsterman severely undermined McGinley’s chances by calling for a “huge presence” to take on Tom Watson.

Smyth, whose 594 European Tour appearances place him seventh on the list of all-time European Tour veterans, does not normally speak up unless he is severely perturbed.

But the 2006 Ryder Cup assistant captain, the oldest winner on the European Tour until Miguel Ángel Jiménez beat his record in Hong Kong last year, sounded as though he expected the worst in the minutes before McGinley eventually emerged as the 2014 captain.

The two-time Ryder Cup player said:

“There’s been a lot of shifting sands in this particular race for the captaincy. And a lot of the stuff I am not particularly happy about. I am just keeping my fingers crossed and I hope Paul wins the vote because the vote is the vital thing.”

Pressed about his concerns, Smyth said:

“Well, one thing was Darren made a late decision to go against Paul. And then we thought it was between Darren and Paul. Then the week before last he said we need someone big like Monty because of Tom Watson, which I think is baloney. And then he pulls out and he appears to be supporting Monty.

“So as I said to someone else recently, it doesn’t pass the smell test for me. And I just hope they make the right decision this evening.”

In the end, Rory McIlroy’s insistence that McGinley get the job proved crucial despite the late push for Montgomerie by Clarke - a player that Smyth admires and regards as a friend.

While the decision was unanimous, sources close to several of the Committee members tells us that four of the 10 men present were prepared to vote for the Scot.

After a general discussion about the qualities of Montgomerie, McGinley, Jiménez, late “applicant” Paul Lawrie and his fellow Scotland’s Sandy Lyle, Chairman Thomas Bjorn had heard enough and simply asked if anyone in the room had any objection to McGinley.

No-one had any objections and following a summing up by European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady, the Dubliner was summoned to receive the glad tidings.

How much damage Clarke has suffered from all this, if any, is debatable. Reports from Abu Dhabi indicate that there was general rejoicing among the rank and file players and their entourages on the range on Wednesday that McGinley had been annointed.

So Clarke’s campaign now looks ill-conceived. His strategy, if he had one, backfired spectacularly in the wake of the tweeting and other public shows of support for McGinley from McIlroy and the backbone of the 2012 side.

Explaining his late change of heart, Clarke argued that it was the sudden realisation that he had a five-year exemption for all the majors for winning the 2011 Open Championship and that his recent form suggested he wasn’t quite finished yet as a top player.

A tempestuous character, the Portrush resident is prone to losing his patience from time to time. As his manager explained following his client’s win at Royal St George’s, he was so fed up with his game early in 2011 that he threatened to quit for good. Money could not have been a factor despite Chubby Chandler’s suggestion the same week that Clarke’s Open windfall came in the nick of time. Clarke himself dismissed that claim within days.

Throwing his hat into the Ryder Cup ring late last season was, almost certainly, another “panic attack” for want of a better phrase. There’s nothing wrong with a man changing his mind, but golfers have long memories and when the time comes to choose McGinley’s successor, his role in the ‘shifting sands’ of the 2014 campaign will not be forgotten.

Darren Clarke during Wednesday’s Pro-Am in Abu Dhabi. Picture Eoin Clarke/www.golffile.ieThe tour’s Chief Executive used the word “unseemly” this week when describing the events of the past few months.

“It was never meant to be a campaigning business,” George O’Grady told Reuters in an interview on the eve of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi Championship. “That will probably have to be looked at in the cold light of day but the world has changed with all this twittering.

“I think personally one person should be invited to become captain and there should be no losers. There should be a view that this is the right guy at the right time because it can all be a little unseemly.”

He went on: “In the end, with all the talk in the social media and the newspapers in the run-up, it was a triumph for democracy. It was done very well. The committee took the decision, it was a unanimous decision but it was more a consensus of everybody’s feelings.

“I think to have a guy announced as captain and to have the world number one (Rory McIlroy) coming in at the back of the room to show his support gives you great confidence.”

When a man of Smyth’s stature says that some European Tour business does not pass “the smell test”, triumphs of democracy do not spring readily to mind.

Where this leaves the Clarke-McGinley relationship is  now a topic of conversation. And while Thursday’s papers will quote Clarke as saying that there will be no hard feelings and that Europe must now “get behind Paul”, his words will ring hollow in the ears of more than one.

McGinley’s choice of assistant captains will be made public nearer the date but one suspects that he has some experienced men in mind.

The Dubliner will not, of course, rule Clarke out of the running for a wildcard as a player. Whatever his personal relationship with Clarke, the Dungannon man will be in his side if he is unquestionably one of the best 12 men available.

Sam Torrance, the man McGinley made a winning captain by holing that putt at the Belfry in 2002, tried to sound diplomatic when asked about the 2014 appointment.

Yet even the canny Scot could not hide his surprise that Clarke had thrown his hat into the ring this time around.

Asked by Sky Sports News about McIlroy’s tweets and how that might not have “looked the best” in terms of the image of the European Tour, Torrance said:

“No. It got a bit wrong with Darren I think. Why Darren was putting himself up for captaincy, I don’t know. I mean, he won the Open last year (2011). Surely he could make the team next year. I think it was just that he was at a low in his game and Darren thought, well if I’m not going to play in it, I’d love to captain it. And that’s where it all went wrong, really. He was never going to be the captain at this one, certainly the next one or the one after that even. It put a cloud over Paul’s nomination but that has all been cleared and the right man has got the job.”

Backing the decision to choose McGinley, Torrrance said: “I think it is great news. I think he is the right man for the job. He has the pedigree. He was a fantastic captain in the Seve Trophy twice, he was vice captain (in the Ryder Cup) twice. He has the respect of the players, he is meticulous, he is a great orator, and I see him as being a tremendously successful captain.”

Assuming the odour will dissapate over the next two year, another”smell test” is expected in January 2015.