VIRGINIA WATER, England — Few courses on the European Tour have a longer and richer history than the West Course at Wentworth. The BMW PGA Championship visited a few times in the 1970s (labeled Viyella in those days) and has been played annually on the “Burma Road” every year since 1984. The World Match Play Championship was also a long-time fixture at the home of the European Tour. For more than four decades, 1964-2007, the Mark McCormack creation was played at Wentworth in October.
This year, however, the BMW PGA is going to be a little different. Instead of its traditional late-May date, the “flagship event” on the world’s second-most important circuit has moved to this week. All to prevent a (near) clash with the PGA Championship in the United States. The hope was that this would make things better across the board for an event that has, for all its inherent importance to European players, lacked any kind of American presence.
And things are different in that respect. As many as seven Americans are in the 132-player field. Three (David Lipsky, Julian Suri and Kurt Kitayama) are European Tour regulars, but the other four (Billy Horschel, Tony Finau, Patrick Reed and Andrew Putnam) are the first of what chief executive Keith Pelley hopes will be the start of a more significant U.S. representation.
“I've heard nothing but great things about this golf tournament, about the event, about the golf course,” said Finau, summing up the visiting mood. “As I asked around, and as I was planning on adding a couple of European Tour events to my schedule, this was one that I felt was necessary.”
That four-month gap between May and September is also going to have an influence on the kind of golf and the sorts of shots the perennially sizable galleries will be treated to this week, especially as the weather is forecast to stay warm and sunny through the weekend.
“The course has had a full season of growth, and they have been able to get all the rubbish out of the grass,” said swing coach Pete Cowen, who works with a number of the world’s best players, including Brooks Koepka and Henrik Stenson. “The greens will be firmer and the course will play better, the run-offs in play. The same type of player will contend, though. This course is all about shaping the ball. Someone like Henrik struggles here because he hits it so straight. His hands are tied.”
Those who know the course best are also looking forward to the prospect of playing Wentworth in prime condition and in prime conditions.
“I prefer it at this time of year,” said Paul Casey, the 2006 World Match Play champion who grew up just down the road. “A lot of technology has been thrown at this golf course, so it's probably going to be even better than I remember. The course has had a perfect sort of growing season. We've kind of gone through a summer where things have cooked a bit, which makes the ball release a little bit more on the greens. We will have to be a little more precise with shots. It is just a much superior test of golf later in the season as we are right now.”
James Morrison, another local boy, concurs.
“It is better at this time of year,” he said. “May is too early. And yes, the greens are firm. That will be the biggest difference. A 5-iron into the greens here yesterday was releasing 12 paces. That’s not happening in May. More questions will be asked of the positioning of the tee shots. Come in from the wrong side, and you’ll find it difficult to get close. And missing on the short side is going to be no bargain. Generally speaking, we’re not going to get away with bad shots.”
Robert Rock of England likes that aspect of the “September Wentworth,” too. Citing the firm fairways, Rock sees “more options” off the tee for a shorter hitter like himself. “I’ll be able to hit a few long irons rather than driver,” he said. “A few more than in May, anyway. And that gives me a chance against the bombers.”
As so often, though, there is a dissenting voice amid all this enthusiasm. Former Ryder Cup player Nicolas Colsaerts has always had a mind of his own.
“I don’t see the course changing much, to be honest,” he says. “The weather can be just as bad in September as it can be in May. The weather dictates how the course will play, more than the date. It is looking good right now, though.”
The last word, however, goes to Stephen Gallacher. The Scot spotted one last difference between May and September. “The trees have grown more,” he says with a smile. “So it looks a bit tighter off the tee. And there are some subtle changes. It’s like Augusta here. They alter things and don’t tell you. I see a bit more rough around the greens. And it’s just in better nick. They can stop making changes now.”