Most Europeans who have invaded the PGA Tour in record numbers – and with ever-increasing success – have dusted off their passports and journeyed to England this week for the BMW Championship at Wentworth.
Those who haven’t might need a history lesson.
In effect, the BMW (known from 1988 through 2004 as the Volvo PGA Championship) is the PGA European Tour’s equivalent of The Players Championship. Wentworth is, in a golfing sense, Europe’s Sawgrass, and the tournament is the European Tour’s flagship event.
Now in its 51st year, the BMW’s roll call of winners is a “who’s who” of European golf going back to the glory days of Tony Jacklin – winner in 1972 and ’82 (when he defeated Bernhard Langer in a playoff). Almost half of the championships have been played at Wentworth, the event’s permanent home since 1984. Nick Faldo (four victories), Langer (three), Seve Ballesteros (two), Ian Woosnam (two) and Jose Maria Olazabal (one) claimed a collective 12 titles in the 20 years from 1978 to ’ 97. When they finished, Colin Montgomerie took over, winning three successive years from 1998 to 2000.
In 1975, Arnold Palmer won the event at Royal St George’s in a gale – his last major victory before going to the Senior PGA Tour in 1980. A year later Gary Player, also a frequent challenger in those days, lost in a playoff to Britain’s Neil Coles, who secured the biggest victory of his career. Palmer’s and Player’s early support for the championship has been matched in recent years by South Africa’s double U.S. Open champions, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Vijay Singh, the most frequent winner in professional golf over the past two seasons but among the missing here this week, has tried no fewer than 11 times to win at Wentworth.
The support of these great players has helped the tournament reach the highest standards of prize money ($5.2 million) and a guaranteed 64 first-place Official World Golf Ranking points – behind only the majors, World Golf Championship events and The Players Championship. These assets, plus the classic challenge of Harry Colt’s famed West Course at Wentworth, should compel all qualified Europeans to compete here every year.
There is one more good reason why no European who enjoys the freedom to ply his trade on the PGA Tour should overlook this event. As recently as 1985, when prize money on the PGA Tour totaled (yes, totaled) $25.3 million (vs. $9.975 million in Europe), PGA Tour card-holders Ballesteros and Langer did not have the automatic right to return to Britain to contest this same PGA Championship.
The regulation at that time permitted a European Tour player to return automatically only for conflicting events in his home country. In 1985, Spain had two European Tour tournaments and Germany had one. Needless to say, Seve did not appreciate that restriction, and together with Langer, Faldo, Isao Aoki (who had a similar problem as a Japanese member of the PGA Tour) and me, we held talks with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman to resolve the issue.
Happily, a new rule was created, which became known as the “home tour release.” It allows Europeans to play anywhere on their own tour without securing a release from the PGA Tour. That regulation was perhaps the most important development during my time as European Tour executive director. Today’s players should remember that part of history and be thankful to Seve, Bernhard and Nick for helping to obtain today’s freedom of trade.
The ambition that prompted those great European major champions to journey across the pond in the first place – to play against the best on the best courses for the best rewards – also should lure them back to support their home tour while facing a world-class field at a superb venue.
To those Europeans who have reported for duty: well done! To those absent, I say: Next year, pay respect to those who paved your golden path.