News & Opinion

Wentworth finally puts on its best look for BMW PGA

Over the past decade, the West Course at Wentworth Club, home of the BMW PGA Championship, has undergone more cosmetic surgery than Cher, Elizabeth Taylor or Denise Richards in their prime.

Ernie Els Design, at the behest of ownership, attempted to modernize Harry Colt's original work (1927) in Virginia Water, England, not once, but twice, with disastrous results. Ownership demanded that the track be made longer and more punishing, with deeper bunkers and more-severe greens. Maybe too deep and too severe.

"I used to really enjoy playing this course, and now it's a grind," Englishman Paul Casey, winner of the 2009 BMW PGA, said in 2011.

To call Wentworth "much-maligned" would be putting it mildly. Casey, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson skipped last year, when Masters champion Danny Willett was the only top-20 player who competed. It was a sad decline for a championship with a Hall of Fame roll call of champions at Wentworth: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer (three times), Jose-Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam (twice), and Colin Montgomerie (three in succession) among them.

Wentworth was the site of the 1953 Ryder Cup, where Sam Snead and Ben Hogan won the 1956 Canada Cup (later renamed the World Cup), and Arnold Palmer beat Neil Coles in 1964 in the World Match Play Championship, beginning a 44-year tournament run there. (Personal aside: In the fall of 1994, during a semester abroad in London, I played hooky and watched Ballesteros play a brilliant round of golf at the Match Play that remains a top-10 spectator experience for me.)

How dire was the situation? Allow Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive officer, to explain: "It was right here at the BMW last year where I orchestrated the first meeting between Mr. (Songhua) Ni, the CEO of Reignwood (Group, the Chinese company that owns Wentworth), and Stephen Gibson, the CEO of Wentworth, and the first meeting had Thomas Bjorn."

For the next hour, Bjorn, the 2018 European Ryder Cup captain, outlined the problems with the course. When he was excused, in came Paul McGinley, the 2014 European Ryder Cup captain.

"Paul, as articulate as he is and as intelligent, also stressed what needed to be done to improve the golf course, and make sure that the players felt that this was a golf course they felt that they wanted to play at," Pelley said. 

Parse through those words and it's evident that Wentworth, which first hosted the European Tour's flagship tournament in 1972 and continuously since 1984, was on thin ice.

So far, the changes have received universal praise for restoring the course to its former glory. Casey, who is competing this week at the Dean and DeLuca Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas, as he concentrates on playing the PGA Tour, couldn't be happier. 

"I have a love affair with Wentworth because I grew up 15 minutes from there and I used to go there to watch the professionals,” he said. “It was the place I first got to see Seve. I won the Match Play and BMW PGA there. Anyone who has ever won there has a club bolted to the wall in the clubhouse. I never thought that would happen to me."

In interviews with several European Tour vets, they made clear that the BMW PGA and Wentworth are beloved. Rory McIlroy remembers flying from his home in Northern Ireland with his parents to watch the World Match Play as a kid. But not even winning the BMW PGA there in 2014 altered his displeasure with the course changes designed to protect par.

"If people went really low, who cares? It's enjoyable," said McIlroy, who withdrew last week to recuperate from a rib injury.

World No. 16 Tyrrell Hatton grew up 30 minutes away, in Marlow, and a trip to Wentworth at age 5 inspired him to play professional golf. He calls the BMW PGA his favorite week of the year, but he agreed that something needed to be done.

"The greens were bumpy and beyond terrible," he said.

The renovation of Wentworth in 2009 and ’10 may rank as one of the most reviled. Casey said the 2011 playoff between Luke Donald and Lee Westwood at the 18th hole, a sharp dogleg right with an approach shot over a small lake, underscored the deficiencies of the course changes.

"You had the two best players in the world on a reachable par 5, and they are hitting hybrids off the tee and laying up. That can't be good architecture," Casey said. "All the greats used to go for it. They added a creek and turned it into a short par 3. Westwood spun a wedge off the green at 18 into the water. That's not golf." 

Ernie Els Design was given a mulligan after last year's tournament. Reignwood Group earmarked 5 million pounds (about $6.5 million) to fix the course and save the tournament. With Bjorn and McGinley as consultants, the greens were rebuilt and regrassed with 007 creeping bentgrass, which improves the appearance and playability of the putting surfaces. A new SubAir system has been installed on all 18 greens, a first in England, which allows the grounds team to control moisture levels, regardless of weather conditions. In addition, 29 bunkers were removed, to reintroduce some of the original strategy of the Colt design. Greens at the eighth, 11th, 14th and 16th have been remodeled, and several others have received a nip and tuck. "We believe this helps more closely realign the course with Harry Colt's original vision whilst also being mindful of the demands of the modern game, always a delicate balancing act," Els said. 

Of the latest changes, which he hadn't yet seen, Casey said: "Finally. This is what it should always have been."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak