John Huggan: Surrey seems to be the hardest word

The PGA at Wentworth has been snubbed by some stars but it remains the Tour’s flagship event

The PGA at Wentworth has been snubbed by some stars but it remains the Tour’s flagship event

YOU know what? Next time you hear any of our colonial cousins from across the pond referring to the fourth, final and least significant of the major championships as “the PGA”, put them right. The event to which they refer is actually the “United States PGA Championship” and is run by the “PGA of America”. The real PGA starts on Thursday morning at Wentworth, its permanent home since 1984.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

As you’d expect, the European Tour’s so-called “flagship event” has a bit of a history and, over the years, has acquired a fair number of 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 being the others) when David Talbot of Royal Mid-Surrey was the champion. 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 until 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.

“Since then, of course, the event has grown and grown. I remember going to the Players Championship in America with promoter Alan Callan. His vision was to create a “flagship event” similar to that at Sawgrass. So that moved the championship on again. But the biggest factor in making the PGA what it is today was the coming of Volvo as sponsors in 1988. They wanted to be at Wentworth every year, which was a natural fit for the European Tour as the headquarters are on site.”

Now, the PGA is the biggest event on the world’s second-biggest tour. OK, so Wentworth’s re-vamped West Course isn’t anyone’s favourite, 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. Take this year. Although the presence of US Ryder Cup star Patrick Reed is a big plus, the PGA Tour’s apparently terminal insularity has long precluded many Americans from making the trip. And the unfortunate absence of Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia reflects badly on all three men as well as a tournament that should be a fixture on every leading European player’s schedule.

“It’s maybe easier for me to comment on this sort of thing now that I am not in charge,” says Schofield. “I certainly have no issue with anyone who says I would love to come but have a scheduling issue. Plus, I know that both Henrik and Ian have made commitments to other events. Henrik is a big part of the Scandinavian Masters in Sweden. And Ian is one of the faces of the returning British Masters at Woburn later this year.

“Politically, it is a difficult one. I was always a believer in working with the players to do what is best for all concerned. And that inevitably involves compromise. Conflict never works in the long term. It only creates resentment. Even if, in this case, it is hard to argue against the notion that this one week should be set in stone for all players. But at least Henrik and Ian are doing what is right elsewhere.

“Having said that, now that I am not sitting in the executive director’s chair I am more understanding of their position. If they can only play in either their ‘home’ event or the PGA, then the former is where they should be. I’m not sure everyone at Wentworth would agree with that view, but that is what I would recommend.

“Of course, were I still at the European Tour I would feel that our leading players should all commit to playing in our biggest event. It’s very important to the tour in so many ways, even if a few players don’t particularly like the course.”

For all Schofield’s pragmatic understanding of the politics involved in dealings with the world’s best golfers, there is little doubt that three such high-profile members deciding to be elsewhere is a blow to a tour in need of revitalisation. Sad to say, for long periods of each year, today’s European Tour is close to moribund, low-key and (relatively) low-purse events dominating much of the schedule. As in so many aspects of the game in the 21st century, things just ain’t what they used to be.

“As far as the PGA was concerned we always had the backing of the leading players back in the day,” confirms Schofield. “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. It’s a real occasion these days. Every two years we see the previous Ryder Cup side reunited – or at least most of the side. 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.”

Such comparisons have plusses and minuses, of course. On the one hand, the PGA’s success surely acts as an incentive for events such as the Scottish Open, Irish Open and French Open to improve year on year. But on the other, the scale of the facilities and rewards on offer at Wentworth only underlines and highlights the inadequacies that are so evident elsewhere on the Old World circuit. Last year, world No.1 Rory McIlroy earned 64 ranking points for his victory at Wentworth; Spain’s Alejandro Canizares got 24 for winning in Morocco, George Coetzee only 20 for finishing first in the Johannesburg Open and Daniel Brooks just 18 when he claimed top prize in Madeira.

But those are comparisons best left for another day. For now, let’s enjoy the PGA for what it is: an opportunity to celebrate much of what is good about the European Tour.

“The PGA will survive one or two absentees,” asserts Schofield. “It will rise above that. At the end of the day, the golf will be the story, not who isn’t there. That is always the case. Look at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. That week will be remembered for the great play of Phil Mickelson far more than the fuss and bother over the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ all-male membership. The game always wins.”

Amen to that.