PGA Championship: Rory McIlroy heads Wentworth field

 

For the first time since January, the European Tour regains golf's limelight with all 12 of the continent's victorious Ryder Cup team competing in this week's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Despite the usual absence of big-name Americans, the Tour's flagship event has drawn a field worthy of its status. Seven of the world's top 20 are on show in a line-up headed by world number two Rory McIlroy.

Not since the Abu Dhabi Championship, which featured McIlroy and Tiger Woods at the start of the year, has the European Tour staged the dominant tournament in any given week.

The faltering Eurozone and the relentless march of the PGA Tour means the Wentworth-based circuit nowadays boasts only limited chunks in the calendar when it doesn't play second fiddle to America.

Last week's action illustrates the point. Graeme McDowell was rightly thrilled to add his name to the pantheon of greats who have won the Volvo World Match Play when he triumphed in Bulgaria.

But the 2010 US Open champion knows he beat a field that struggles to compare with those assembled when the tournament regularly thrilled massive autumn crowds in its Wentworth heyday.

McDowell places a trophy on his mantelpiece engraved with names including Nicklaus, Norman, Ballesteros and Els, and he worked very hard to join those greats in winning it.

Graeme McDowell (right)

Graeme McDowell beat Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee to win the World Match Play Championship

But his assessment was typically honest and realistic. "Not the greatest field in the world of golf this week, but 24 solid players who are tough to beat," said the world number seven, who was the highest ranked player in Bulgaria.

"This feels like a really, really special win. I'm sure Volvo are going to work hard to take this tournament from strength to strength and get it back as one of the premier events, one of the special events on the European Tour, which it needs to be."

But asking elite players who live and play the majority of their golf in the US to head to Eastern Europe in the crowded period between the Masters and US Open is never going to be easy.

And the state of the world economy makes it ever more attractive for players to base themselves in the United States.

The PGA Tour ruthlessly laps up the cream. We have seen it with the highly promising Thorbjorn Olesen gaining playing rights with a only handful of appearances there this year.

In years gone by, the 23-year-old Dane would have expected to ply his trade predominantly in Europe before moving to plunder the weekly riches available stateside.

It doesn't work that way any more. Gonzalo Fernandez Castano, a Spanish stalwart who has never finished higher than 17th on the European money list, is another to earn PGA Tour membership this year.

"At the moment I am a European who is just investigating what's going on here (in the US)," Fernandez Castano told BBC Sport. "But hopefully in a few months I'll be a Spaniard running away from his country which is falling apart.

Previous winners at Wentworth

2012: Luke Donald (Eng)

2011: Luke Donald (Eng)

2010: Simon Khan (Eng)

2009: Paul Casey (Eng)

2008: Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa)

"It's sad to say this but things are not going well in Spain and I think my kids are going to have a better future in America so we are planning to move here.

"I don't like the way things are going and I think we are going to be happier somewhere else. Every time I watch the news I just get angry, so if I have the chance to go somewhere else let's just take the opportunity."

This is the reality with which the European Tour has to work even though it remains awash with talent.

Fernandez Castano, Olesen and David Lynn provide proof that if you can make a living on the continent's circuit you are good enough to do the same in the pampered environs of the PGA Tour.

Europe should also attract young Americans who are yet to make it on their leading circuit.

Peter Uihlein's victory at the Madeira Islands Open last week sends a powerful message back across the Atlantic that this remains an excellent place to progress a young career.

Peter Uihlein

Peter Uihlein's victory at the Madeira Islands Open was his first as a professional

And Fernandez Castano was keen to stress: "I'm still going to play the European Tour as much as I can - it's just my country that I'm not happy with. For me it's still my home tour."

This means the Spaniard will join the growing ranks of top 50 players able to fulfil a dual schedule. This isn't, though, great news for the Tour's less vaunted stops.

European Tour members have to play 13 tournaments a year. Eight of those are taken up with the four majors and four World Golf Championships and six of those are in America.

Distilled down, the obligation is to play just five Tour events which means there are worryingly few standard tournaments capable of attracting the continent's best players.

That's why this week at Wentworth is so important. It is a rare chance for us to see the stars who retained the Ryder Cup in such dramatic style last September.

Over the coming weeks championships like the Irish, French and Scottish Opens will also attract strong fields so it is not all doom and gloom.

The closing four events on the Race to Dubai, newly branded as 'The Final Series', will claim their fair share of headlines. But two of those are in China, one in Turkey and the climax remains in the Middle East.

So if you want to see the best European golf has to offer don't waste the coming opportunities. This is the season and it begins on Thursday with Luke Donald's PGA title defence over Wentworth's West Course.