IS IT too much to ask for this week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to be what it says on the tin – a celebration of European golf?
The European Tour’s flagship event is marking its 60th anniversary and, quite frankly, deserves an occasion that will be remembered for the right reasons. Unlike last year, when the complete week was overshadowed by a racism storm sparked by Sergio Garcia’s ill-judged comments towards Tiger Woods.
Those remarks were made at the “Players’ Awards”, the 2014 version of which takes place tonight at a hotel close to Heathrow. A glitzy bash, its central figures will have been warned to think twice before opening their mouths on stage.
Yes, Garcia was at fault for coming out with his “fried chicken” comment 12 months ago. Also culpable, though, was Steve Sands, a Golf Channel presenter who hosted the night along with Sarah Stirk of Sky Sports. They were both being paid for their services by the European Tour – handsomely, too, no doubt – yet Sands effectively teed up Garcia to put his foot in it. The Spaniard was still feeling raw about his spat with Woods during the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass, so the subject should have been off limits.
Heck, the entire European Ryder Cup team from the “Miracle at Medinah” was in the room that night so it wasn’t as though anyone was struggling for topics of conversation to entertain the guests. What followed that event was something to forget for the European Tour because, quite simply, its biggest event became a sideshow and that can never be allowed to happen again.
As I stated in this column a week ago, I didn’t agree with the battering that George O’Grady, the Tour’s chief executive, took in the wake of his slip of the tongue in an interview about the Garcia affair. It led to some of my colleagues calling organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card in a bid to stir things up, the result of which was that the event itself was left severely short-changed in terms of column inches.
The day after the first round, for instance, one of Britain’s biggest-selling newspapers devoted a double-page spread to golf yet – and I clearly remember this – the fact South African James Kingston led at Wentworth after a 66 was contained in a few meagre lines at the foot of a column.
BMW could not have been happy. In fact, they were probably seething. The car giant is one of golf’s biggest sponsors and has just extended its partnership with the European Tour through until the end of the 2018 season. It puts on one of the game’s best events at Wentworth and one that simply can’t be tarnished in any way on this occasion. There was a distinct danger of that happening, of course, following the Tour’s decision to play on in the Madeira Islands Open just over a week ago, despite the death of a caddie, Annan-based Iain MacGregor. “Zim Mac”, as he was better known on the circuit, will still be in the thoughts of his friends and colleagues as they head to Virginia Water and on Thursday, the day of his funeral, all players and caddies have been encouraged to wear “black for Mac” as a mark respect.
It is to be hoped, however, that the statement issued by the European Tour over the weekend can allow this week to pass without any ongoing slanging matches over that unfortunate incident. O’Grady has apologised for the “hurt and upset” caused by the events in Madeira. He is also determined to ensure that “lessons are learned”. He was said to have displayed “humility” and “honesty” during an emotionally-charged meeting with the European Tour Caddies’ Association in Girona last week and, in my personal dealings with the man, that came as no surprise.
While Madeira was different, there have been too many occasions in recent years when golf events have had the shine taken off them for one reason or another. Take last year’s Open Championship, for instance. The raging debate about Muirfield’s men-only policy took much of the enjoyment away from that for an awful lot of people. Golf, certainly at the highest level, still offers huge pots of money. The prize fund at Wentworth is just under £3.9 million – more than three times that on offer in last week’s Spanish Open. Like any other sport, though, sponsors don’t like being linked to bad news stories.
It’s why HSBC, one of the Open’s main backers, has fired warning shots across the R&A’s bows over men-only clubs. It’s also why BMW will be keen to see that celebration of European golf take place without anything untoward happening in leafy Surrey later this week.