Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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BMW PGA Championship preview

Monday, May 22, 2017

The European Tour’s flagship event returns to the West Course at Wentworth and what promised to be a stellar field was struck a blow with last week’s news that Rory McIlroy’s rib injury required further rehabilitation.
His withdrawal will lead to questions about the field, but the course will yet again draw most focus as the Wentworth Club continues to revise the 2008 re-design which was widely panned and has already received two revisions.
Always a popular venue with galleries, the difficulties on the course have lead some to suggest a move elsewhere which would be a pity given that the tree-lined fairways of Surrey have become synonymous with the start of the European Tour’s summer of golf.
Early indications are that the course is back to something like full health so hopefully we can concentrate on the golf – and hope for another thrilling conclusion. 
Last year Chris Wood blasted a superb tournament record-equalling front nine of 29 to assume a four-shot lead at the turn. He then endured an attritional back nine before hanging on to win by one shot.
The tournament is the first of the new Rolex Series which means it has a €7 million prize fund – a big week for the golfers and a big week, too, for gamers. 
The course
In response to those changes made to the course in 2008 (and the changes to the changes which followed) the club brought in European Golf Design, along with a committee that included Paul McGinley, to revive the fortunes of the layout. Every bunker has been rebuilt, with 29 taken out of play to return the playing options lost by their inclusion. Four greens have been fully rebuilt, five partially. 
One hole which typifies the alterations is the eighth. The green no longer stands tall as if on stilts, with deep bunkers to the right. It is returned to ground and befits an English course once again. The third has had the fairway bunkers made less penal. They were so deep no-one could reach the green if they found them. It will remain a tough prospect, but at least achievable.
As mentioned above, initial player feedback, including that of defending champion Chris Wood, has been excellent. It will play to a par of 72, with a yardage of 7,284. Wood’s winning total of 9-under-par was higher than in recent years and he believes the field will go lower this week, with improved putting surfaces and an increase in playability tee-to-green.
Past 10 champions, Winning scores and stats
2016 -9 Chris Wood (DD: 48, DA: 7, GIR: 4, Scr: 18, PA: 13, AA: 2)
2015 -21 Byeong-Hun An (DD: 1, DA: 35, GIR: 1, Scr: 1, PA: 11, AA: 2)
2014 -14 Rory McIlroy (DD: 4, DA: 29, GIR: 23, Scr: 21, PA: 7, AA: 2)
2013 -10 Matteo Manassero (DD: 70, DA: 47, GIR: 4, Scr: 14, PA: 36, AA: 34)
2012 -15 Luke Donald (DD: 33, DA: 40, GIR: 12, Scr: 2, PA: 3, AA: 4)
2011 -6 Luke Donald (DD: 55, DA: 23, GIR: 4, Scr: 25, PA: 5, AA: 7)
2010 -6 Simon Khan (DD: 29, DA: 1, GIR: 1, Scr: 34, PA: 54, AA: 7)
2009 -17 Paul Casey (DD: 27, DA: 5, GIR: 11, Scr: 15, PA: 13, AA: 2)
2008 -11 Miguel Angel Jimenez (DD: 38, DA: 8, GIR: 51, Scr: 11, PA: 1, AA: 6)
2007 -8 Anders Hansen (DD: 62, DA: 1, GIR: 2, Scr: 11, PA: 46, AA: 9)
Notes: The last three winners have been ranked 2nd for All-Round game and nine of the ten were top ten for that category. Hitting greens matters: eight of the ten were ranked 12th or better. It is relevant that the last two winners (Wood and An) are on record that their strength is in the 4-5-6-iron range? Beyond mere numbers consider that five of the last eight winners were from the south of England, players who attended the tournament as boys. Manassero also admitted he is inspired by the course because it evokes his hero Seve Ballesteros (indeed he wore a blue jumper and green trousers in honor of him). Course form is often key: nine of the last ten winners (An was a debutant) had been top three at either the 54- or 72-hole stage of the tournament prior to their win.
The Weather
An almost perfect forecast. Thursday should be sunny, a little cloud, with very little wind. But Friday through Sunday should see clear skies and plenty of sunshine. The wind will be up as the weekend progresses, but nothing more than 10 to 12 mph – note, however, that it might change direction on Sunday (from south-east to south-west). The entire week has less than 5% chance of rain.
The Leading Contenders
He’s making his 13th visit to the West Course – will it be lucky? Maybe not because his previous best return is third place in the 2007 HSBC World Match Play and although he was T7 the last time he played this event that is his best effort in 11 tries. He missed four straight cuts ahead of improving to T16 at THE PLAYERS. Bear in mind he will be lauded for his Open win at receptions all week so may hope to ride the wave of good memories (or be distracted).
A long-time supporter of the tournament even when others were steering clear you also get the sense he might like the return to old ways. Twice a runner-up in the tournament (before the changes in 2007 and after them in 2012), he also led after 36 holes as far back as 2004. Runner-up behind Sergio Garcia in the Masters, but last seen ending his week at TPC Sawgrass with an 80.
This week will see the Swede make his 11th appearance in the tournament and whilst there have been glimpses of form, he’s mostly found himself treading water. He was T6 in 2008 and T8 in 2015, but otherwise never made the top 20. After his stellar season on the European Tour he arrives fresh from his best form on the PGA Tour: a quarter finalist in the WGC World Match Play, T2 heading into the final round at the Wells Fargo Championship and T10 at THE PLAYERS.
Tyrrell Hatton
The Englishman perfectly fits the profile of English golfer from near London who enjoyed watching golf at Wentworth as a youngster – and who will have family and friends supporting him all week. If his first two event starts didn’t hint as much (T38-T46) his T7 last year did – moreover he was T2 heading into the final round. Had a hot spell through March on the PGA Tour but gone off the boil since and was T41 at THE PLAYERS.
It’s not quite happening for the South African at the moment. He was T27 at the Masters, T11 at The Heritage, T10 (after being T2 after 54 holes) in the Texas Open, T24 in the Zurich Classic and T48 at THE PLAYERS. Solid stuff, but short of his best. Will the return to Europe help? He was T5 on course debut in 2012 and T11 12 months ago. T24 and T61 in between so he’s always played four rounds.
The big-hitting Belgian’s first two visits to the West Course were startlingly similar: a failure to break par on Thursday (75 in 2014, 72 in 2015), failure to break 80 Friday (81 then 80), early trip home at the weekend. Last year he broke par twice before the weekend to make the cut and eventually finishing T27. Impressed on his Masters debut to finish T4 before missing the cut in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Skipped THE PLAYERS and played at home with mates instead.
There is good and there is bad in the Englishman’s record at Wentworth. He’s 4-for-5 and in 2015 a third round 65 helped him to T6, but 12 months later he spent Saturday moving in the other direction due to a horrible 81 which he followed with a 76. A winner in Abu Dhabi, a play-off loser in the Shenzhen International and a solid debut at THE PLAYERS – a good week here would be absolutely no surprise.
Prior to his rookie season on the European Tour, An said the West Course was the one track he was most looking forward to encountering on the Tour and he backed that up with a remarkable victory, shooting 71-64-67-65. A defense of T33 was not a bad effort either. T8 in the Wells Fargo and T5 last week in Dallas to bounce back to form after eight outings without a top 30.
Last year was far from the first time the tall Englishman had found himself in contention at Wentworth. On debut in 2010 he led heading into the final round before a 77 derailed his challenge and in 2015 he finished T4. He used that experience to blitz the front nine and retain composure when tested on the back nine last year. Warmed up nicely for his defense with T4 in the China Open, opening with a 72 before tearing the course up with rounds of 68-65-68. 
Closed out the 2016 season with a win in his home event and then T4 in the DP World Tour Championship, the last time he was seen on the European Tour (WGC and majors excepted). He’s been very solid on the PGA this season, most recently leading the Wells Fargo Championship after 36 holes before ending the week T24 and then pegging T6 at THE PLAYERS. Between 2012 and 2015 he finished between T5 and T9 every year on the West Course, before going T55 last year.
The German is 9-for-10 at Wentworth with eight of those finished T31 or better, and six of them top 20. Promising, but last year’s T7 is his best finishing position and his T5 after 54 holes was the first time he had been top five at the end of any round (and only the third time he’d been in the top ten). Hasn’t missed a cut since the 2016 Valspar Championship, but also hasn’t been in contention since this year’s Honda Classic when T4.

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