• Out of Bounds

Americans only thing missing from Wentworth

ESPN staff
May 30, 2012
Wentworth attracts good crowds and produces good play © PA Photos

The BMW PGA Championship must surely now be considered the biggest tournament in golf behind the four majors and four World Golf Championship events (and it might even be bigger than a couple of those).

The Players Championship might regularly be referred to as golf's 'fifth major', but that really doesn't hold true any more. The European Tour's equivalent event is played on a better course (certainly from the players' perspective), attracts better crowds, and is a more exciting spectacle for the viewers at home.

In almost every regard, it is better than the big money event played at TPC Sawgrass.

Like the Sawgrass event, it seems to identify a worthy winner, too. Since Ernie Els completed his oft-controversial modifications of the Wentworth layout two years ago, world No. 1 Luke Donald has won twice - edging (then-world No. 2) Lee Westwood in a play-off one year, and keeping (top ten, and recent WGC-Cadillac Championship victor) Justin Rose at arm's length the other.

Painful as it is to admit, however, there is still something missing that prevents the tournament from truly taking over as the biggest non-major, non-WGC event on the golf calendar.

It needs to attract more Americans.

This year, the only Americans to attend the event were Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis and Rich Beem - players granted places because, Curtis apart, while their major wins no longer grant them exemptions in their homeland, they still get invited to the big events over here.

On the other hand, the Players - heck, any big PGA Tour event worth its salt - attracts flocks of top Europeans, along with homegrown stars. It's getting those same stars to cross the Atlantic in the other direction that is proving the problem.

Part of the issue is the schedule. Not only is the PGA Championship played opposite the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial - one of the nicest courses on the US tour - but it comes during the crucial build-up to the US Open, a time where US players want to be honing their games on familiar courses without the extra headache of travel, jetlag and all that comes with cross-Atlantic voyages.

Rectifying this is not easy. Changing the date of the PGA Championship is a possibility, but not necessarily viable.

Moving it nearer the Open Championship (thereby enticing top Americans to come to these shores for a three-week stint) would be a possibility but, with so little time between the US Open and Open, tournaments scheduled between have traditionally struggled to attract more than a smattering of the truly elite players.

A switch with the International Open in Germany (a possibility, as it is also sponsored by BMW) would be the obvious move, but the field at that event has not always been great and, perhaps more significantly, that only succeeds in putting the tournament up against the AT&T National, a lucrative PGA event played at the testing but fun Congressional Country Club.

A switch, then, might not be a viable prospect. There are other options, however - most obviously raising the prize fund, or offering appearance fees to the top tier Americans to get them to play.

Then again, the tournament does not need to resort to such tricks to make itself viable - it already packs out the grounds with spectators for almost every day, so paying appearance fees to the likes of Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson would not make economic sense (in selling extra tickets) like such tactics do for events in the Middle East or Asia.

No, American players need to be attracted for purely golfing reasons. In this light, perhaps it is no surprise that the course this week was set-up in such a way that it led many to call it a "US Open-style test".

Marketing the event as a warm-up for the second major of the year might just be the extra incentive US stars need to come to Surrey.

Webb Simpson was certainly considering it last week, tweeting about how good Wentworth looked - an observation that led Luke Donald to urge him to play the event in 2012.

If Simpson does, he will not be disappointed. While Ernie Els might have fumed at the course setup over the weekend (having redesigned the place, the South African perhaps is a bit too close to the issue to have an objective view), it was a tough test that demanded the best of players but rewarded them if that is what they delivered.

The double par-five finish, a rarity in modern golf, adds a bit of intrigue and excitement down the stretch - even if the 18th (Els' biggest project) remains a finishing hole that doesn't quite live up to its promise.

When the weather is nice, as it was last week, there is simply no better event to be playing in at this time of year.

Get a few more Americans to attend, and the BMW PGA Championship instantly becomes one of the biggest non-major events around.

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