Sport Golf

Monday 27 February 2017

Cheating claims threaten code of honour

Elliot Saltman case has shaken golf's cosy view of itself, writes Lawrence Donegan

E xpect fanfares and bunting this week from the European Tour, which will confirm Jose Maria Olazabal as the 2012 Ryder Cup captain and showcase its biggest stars at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

But while the Spaniard takes his bows and the heroes of Celtic Manor tee off in the first big event of the 2011 season, there is other, less edifying, business to attend to.

On Tuesday, a committee of tour players and officials will meet in the emirate to sit in judgment on Elliot Saltman, a Scottish professional who stands accused of the game's ultimate sin -- cheating.

Last September, the 28-year-old was disqualified from the M2M Russian Challenge Cup after his playing partners complained he had repeatedly marked his ball incorrectly on the greens of the Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club near Moscow.

If the alleged offence can be measured in fractions of an inch -- the distance by which Saltman has been accused of replacing his ball closer to the hole than he should have -- then its impact has been on an altogether grander, and more damaging, scale.

Professional golf, after all, is meant to be the most honourable of endeavours; its unique selling point in a sporting era when rules exist mostly to be bent or broken. Little wonder, then, that nervousness abounds when accusations are made that shake the sport's self-satisfied view of itself.

As this week's hearing approaches, there is no doubt officials at the European Tour are nervous. They are not alone. Stuart Davis and Marcus Higley, the two players who brought the alleged rules infringement to the attention of tour officials, will be anxiously awaiting an end to the distraction caused by their involvement in the case. And for Saltman himself, there has been a long wait for what he has described as an "opportunity to clear my name".

Mainstream media coverage of the events in Russia has been scant but in the more obscure corners of the game's online community, the Scot has seen his reputation come under siege. "I have seen the stuff on the internet and I'm disgusted to be honest,'' he said. "It affects not only me but my family. I don't want to be labelled as a cheat. Nobody wants that reputation. The sooner this gets sorted out the better."

A scheduled hearing in November was postponed because the European Tour official in charge of the case suffered a family bereavement. Another hearing scheduled at the tour headquarters in Wentworth in December was postponed because of travel problems caused by bad weather.

Aware of growing concerns among the Tour's rank and file that a player facing allegations of breaking the rules has continued to play, officials are seeking a swift resolution. Saltman, who is competing this weekend in South Africa, and Davis and Higley have all been asked to travel to Abu Dhabi for Tuesday's hearing.

All have been instructed not to discuss the details of the case, but Saltman faces charges of incorrectly replacing his ball at least five times during the first round of the event in Russia -- marking the ball in one position (at "eight o'clock" on its circumference) on the green and replacing in another (at "six o'clock"), marginally closer to the hole.

These alleged infringements were drawn to his attention by his playing partners at the end of the round, after which all three met with Gary Butler, the European Tour rules official in charge that week. After that meeting, Saltman was disqualified.

The Scot last week denied any wrongdoing, but in an interview with journalists in Spain last month he indicated that, in the immediate aftermath of the events in Russia, he agreed he had broken the rules. "I accepted what was said at the time because I was in shock at the time and I didn't want to be labelled a cheat. I am sorry now that I didn't stand up for myself,'' he said.

Saltman's explanation of his initial reaction and subsequent retraction, along with evidence from two fellow professionals, will be at the crux of Tuesday's hearing. If the case against him is upheld, he faces a range of possible sanctions including a "censure", as was handed down to Colin Montgomerie in the aftermath of the so-called Jakarta-gate affair when he was accused of incorrectly replacing his ball after a rain delay.

There is also the possibility of a ban, as has happened twice before on the European Tour. In 1985, the Scottish pro David Robertson was banned for 20 years after being accused of moving his ball marker 15 feet nearer the hole during an Open Championship qualifier. Sweden's Johan Tumba was accused of altering his scorecard at tour school in 1992 and was banned for 10 years, though this was subsequently reduced to three.

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