PGA Championship: Big names' snub shows European Tour's battle

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia
Rory McIlroy (left) and Sergio Garcia are among those missing the PGA Championship, which is no longer considered the European Tour's 'flagship' event
European Tour - PGA Championship
Date: 26-29 May Venue: Wentworth (West), Surrey
Coverage: Highlights from the third round onwards on BBC Two

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia provided Europe with a timely boost with their weekend victories but at Wentworth this week there will be no celebratory homecoming for the continent's two most charismatic stars.

McIlroy completed an emotional triumph in sensational style at the Irish Open before Garcia collected his first PGA Tour victory in four years at the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas.

Both players had long since decided to skip the BMW PGA Championship, an event no longer considered the European Tour's 'flagship' tournament but still worth £3.9m in prize money.

Instead, Masters champion Danny Willett headlines a field that includes only four players from the world's top 30, Irish Open runner-up Russell Knox, defending champion Byeong Hun An and Rafael Cabrera Bello being the others.

Circumstances have not been kind to the historic tournament, one that is always superbly run and attracts huge crowds.

The course, the date, the Tour's new eligibility rules and Justin Rose's bad back have all conspired against it.

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Rory McIlroy clinched his first win of the season at Kildare

In recent years the iconic West Course has not matched the excellence of the infrastructure at the Surrey venue.

Ernie Els' £6.5m redesign in 2009 - including adding a water hazard in front of the 18th green - has yet to find favour with the players.

The re-laid greens also soon became contaminated with native grasses that at this fertile time of year grow at different rates, resulting in inconsistent putting surfaces.

Indeed when new Tour chief executive Keith Pelley held a succession of meetings with leading players in Dubai at the end of last year, the highest number of complaints surrounded the Wentworth tournament.

Those negative assessments probably contributed to his downbeat verdict on a tournament the Tour had previously marketed as its most significant gathering.

"I don't see it as our flagship event," the incoming boss at Wentworth stated at the time, citing problems with the course and the fact its prize fund is eclipsed by the PGA Tour's middle-of-the-road event held the same week.

The Colonial Classic in Fort Worth - which boasts an unremarkable field other than Texan home star Jordan Spieth and Open champion Zach Johnson - is worth around £700,000 more than the PGA's prize fund.

Scheduling has become even more difficult for the top players this year as a result of the Olympics squeezing their summer diaries and McIlroy was always going to prioritise the Irish Open, which is backed by his charitable foundation.

Danny Willett, Masters champion
After his Masters win at Augusta, Danny Willet now headlines the week at Wentworth

With this week off, he can prepare for the upcoming Memorial tournament in Ohio and especially for the fearsome challenge of Oakmont, venue for next month's US Open.

It is a similar story for Garcia, who has played in the Wentworth event only four times in his career. European number two Henrik Stenson has competed just once since the course changed in 2010.

Rose's bad back was an unexpected and significant blow, for the popular Englishman is one of those who has enjoyed himself here, with two runners-up finishes.

Perhaps the most surprising absentee is three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, never a fan of Wentworth at this time of year, but likely to be announced as a Ryder Cup vice-captain here later this week.

The Tour's rules do not especially penalise those missing this week as it is easy for the continent's biggest stars to make up the five events required to retain membership.

The French Open - celebrating its 100th anniversary - counts as two events this year, while the Ryder Cup and Olympics are also in the reckoning.

Steps are being taken to make the tournament more attractive to the biggest names - Els' design company has been asked to provide a further re-design and the greens will be re-laid.

Work begins as soon as this year's championship is completed and Wentworth are confident they have found grass that will, at last, provide perfect spring-time putting surfaces.

Pelley and his executives are also seeking a prize fund commensurate with the event's supposed standing, even if the Tour chief ended the notion of its 'flagship' status.

Byeong-Hun An
Defending champion Byeong Hun An is 26th in the world rankings

His welcome dose of realism was illustrative of the Canadian's ambition to swell purses and find schedules attractive to the world's best players.

The Tour's boss has also stated his desire to hook young talent and foster longer-term loyalty and it is this youthful generation that provides the value this week.

Several of those to watch out for come from Asia; the likes of last year's winner An and champions in recent weeks Haotong Li, of China, and Korea's Jeunghun Wang.

There is also a highly-promising English contingent incorporating Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan, Eddie Pepperell and Tyrell Hatton, while Belgium's Thomas Pieters is another outstanding prospect.

They all have the potential to become genuine stars of the future and might well take a big stride in that direction this week.

Because, despite the absence of McIlroy, Garcia and co, the PGA remains a tournament of great prestige.