How can the BMW PGA Championship become meaningful to Americans? Here's one man's plan
This week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the first in the European Tour’s new Rolex Series of $7 million events, has never lacked ambition. Or, it must be acknowledged, financial backers. As far back as 1968, the Schweppes drinks company was the sponsor at Dunbar (one of only three Scottish venues since the event was first played in 1955, Western Gailes and the Old Course at St. Andrews the others). Viyella, Penfold, Colgate, Sun Alliance, Whyte & Mackay, Volvo and, now, BMW have followed suit.
“We got a lucky break right at the start of my tenure when Colgate took over Penfold and, in turn, the sponsorship of the PGA Championship in 1975,” says Ken Schofield, the European Tour’s executive director from 1974 to 2000. “Between the two companies, they stayed with us for five years in the late-’70s and raised the first-prize fund to £50,000 when half that was a big purse. Perhaps just as importantly they took the event to some great links like Royal St. George’s, Royal Birkdale and the Old Course at St. Andrews. It also didn’t hurt that Arnold Palmer came over in ’75 and won at Sandwich. His victory alone lifted the stature of the event.”
Today, the BMW PGA is the biggest event on the world’s second biggest tour. OK, so Wentworth’s re-re-re-vamped West Course isn’t anyone’s favorite, but the combination of a top-class field, a big purse and a venue that is iconic if not loved is potent indeed. But not perfect, given that the PGA Tour’s apparently terminal insularity has long precluded many Americans from making the trip.
This week, only four of Uncle Sam’s nephews will compete at Wentworth—Paul Peterson, David Lipsky, Peter Uihlein and Daniel Im—all European Tour regulars. Nowhere else in the 156-man field will there be a U.S. twang, the likes of Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and all the rest seemingly having something better to do this week. Even worse, that something isn’t necessarily playing in the competing PGA Tour event, the Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial. For the leading Americans, the PGA Championship at Wentworth isn’t even an afterthought.
Perhaps even more depressing, the BMW PGA has failed to attract all of the leading European players. Rory McIlroy’s on-going rib injury absolves the four-time major winner, but Masters champion Sergio Garcia is absent through choice, as are Jon Rahm, Paul Casey and Rafa Cabrera-Bello. On the upside, Scotland’s Russell Knox has made the trip from his Florida base and, of course, Englishman Chris Wood will be there to defend his title.
“As the tours ‘protect’ themselves, they are hindering the game,” says agent Andrew (Chubby) Chandler, whose clients include Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Danny Willett. “Don’t get me wrong; we don’t need a world tour. All we need is nine or 10 events every year where everyone plays. Wentworth is a great example. It’s the right time of year. It’s a good course. The event already has a good standing. They have a great sponsor in place. It is, in so many ways, the perfect spot for the very best to get together.”
The lack of an American presence is an aspect of the BMW PGA that also disappoints Schofield, although he does have a possible solution. While unlikely ever to come about given the inherent politics and logistics involved, it is a romantic notion that would certainly enhance professional golf on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The European Tour has had a lifetime of putting on great events no one in America seems to care about,” Schofield says. “It’s time to put an end to that. I see a closer relationship between the BMW PGA and the Players as a way of further cementing relations and cooperation between the tours. It’s just the right thing to do for the game.
In other words, Schofield would like to see the Players become part of the money list on the European Tour and, in turn, the BMW PGA become part of the PGA Tour’s money list. “That would provide further validation for both,” he says. “It can be done and has already been done with the British Senior Open. Suddenly, the field for that event contains the vast majority of the leading American seniors. So a ‘twinning’ of the two is a way forward for both.
“It is only in the last 50 years that the best Americans have come en masse to the Open Championship,” Schofield continued. “Five years from now, I’d like to think that they would have added the BMW PGA to their schedules. It would make them better players. Wentworth would ask them different questions than the ones they are asked to answer most weeks on the PGA Tour.”
All of which is hard to deny. But, for all Schofield’s pragmatic understanding of the politics involved in dealings with the world’s best golfers, there is little doubt that the absence of so many high-profile players is a blow to a tour and an event in need of revitalization. Sad to say, for long periods of each year, today’s European Tour is close to moribund. Low-key and (relatively) low-purse events dominate much of the schedule. As in so many aspects of golf in the 21st century, things just ain’t what they used to be, even as new European Tour executive director Keith Pelley fights the good fight to make the it more relevant.
“As far as the BMW PGA was concerned, we always had the backing of the leading players back in the day,” Schofield laments. “They made a big effort to support the event. I can remember the likes of Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer taking Concorde to the states on the Monday evening so that they could play in the Memorial Tournament in Ohio.
“It’s important for the European Tour to have an event of the PGA’s stature. I don’t want to give the impression that it is the only big event on the tour. But it does set a benchmark for the others, in terms of how it is staged and the level of the prize fund.”
Now if only the field—and worldwide interest—reflected that as well.