Professional / Euro Tour

BMW PGA Championship in danger of falling further down Euro Tour totem pole

Wentworth
The 18th hole at Wentworth. (Getty)

VIRGINIA WATER, England – The same narrative plays out at the $5.5 million BMW PGA Championship every year. The story is normally about who’s not here than who is.

This year is no different.

There is just one player from the world top 20 in this week’s field. Masters champion Danny Willett is the headline act at world number nine. There are another three from the world top 30 – Russell Knox (23), defending champion Byeong Hun An (26) and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello (28).

There were four world top 20 players last year.

Once upon a time, all of Europe’s top players teed it up in the Tour’s “flagship” event. Those days seem like a distant memory.

The most significant names absent are world number three Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els.

McIlroy dropped out because he had already played three events in a row. Stenson didn’t play last year either. Rose, to be fair, was scheduled to play but dropped out because of back injury. Poulter hates the golf course. Casey has given up his European Tour membership. Garcia doesn’t play for tax reasons while Els is absent to help his daughter celebrate her 17th birthday.

It doesn’t seem too long ago that many were asking how to attract the top Americans to play Europe’s flagship event. Such is the BMW PGA Championship’s slide down the popularity pole, that questions are now being asked about why the top Europeans don’t come to play.

“I know there are a few players missing,” Lee Westwood said. “I understand why Rory is not playing.

“There are other players that don’t like the way this golf course sets up for them, so they miss it because of that. Ideally you would like everybody to play, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We have to pick and choose where we play, and some people choose not to play this.”

Luke Donald plays Wentworth most years because the course suits him. He’s a two-time winner. He agrees with Westwood that the golf course is an acquired taste.

“It’s a golf course that some people love and some people don’t,” Donald said.

“At the same time, it’s our biggest event and we’d love for as many good players to play as possible. I’m not sure what the answer is.”

Unfortunately, the European Tour doesn’t have the answer either.

New chief executive Keith Pelley didn’t help matters last year when he dismissed the tournament’s flagship tag, upsetting long time European Tour sponsor BMW.

“Our flagship event is right here,” Pelley said during the DP World Championship in Dubai. “This is an event offering a prize fund of $8 million plus a bonus pool. The event at Wentworth is a terrific tournament which attracts 125,000 fans, but it has a prize fund of five million Euros. The other event in America that week offered $6.7 million. That’s unacceptable. So I don’t see the BMW as our flagship tournament.”

It’s really no surprise the top players have taken a pass when the man in charge doesn’t even rate the event. (I’d love to have been a fly on the wall the first time the Canadian met with BMW’s top brass.)

Then there’s the golf course, the real reason the players don’t turn up. Quite simply, many players hate it. Harry Colt’s original layout has undergone several re-designs since the early 2000s, most of which have been met with disdain from the top players.

Els is the man responsible for messing with Colt’s design. He’s about to get his third try at undoing errors that have spoilt one of England’s classic courses.

“I know they are doing a big redo of the course again next year,” Donald said. “I’m sure some guys that haven’t played as much in the past will be interested to see what that’s like. I’m sure they will come back and see if it’s a course that suits their eye more.”

Let’s hope so. Let’s also hope BMW stick with the event despite Pelley’s “flagship” gaffe.

Otherwise this once great tournament is destined to fall even further down the must play schedule of Europe’s best.

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