It’s time for the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth, Surrey once again.
As such, Europe’s best players are present at the BMW PGA Championship this week. The cavalry is headed by 2014 champion Rory McIlroy, who is joined by the likes of Paul Casey and defending champion Alex Noren.
The West Course is a 7,284 yard par 72, and has hosted the event since 1984. While such a long-established track gives us reams of course form to call on, the set-up has undergone some changes over the years.
The legendary Ernie Els spearheaded the changes over a decade ago, adding 310 yards of length along with 30 bunkers. In recent years, the par 5 18th has introduced a water hazard around the green. A £6m redesign of the course was commissioned in 2016, removing 29 bunkers, making the driving narrower but fairer (much to Anthony Wall’s delight). The greens were made shorter, faster and firmer, putting more of a premium on putting, with the grass composition changing to a creeping bent.
One of those responsible for the revamp, Paul McGinley, has also discussed the changes.
Examining the statistics of the first tournament on newly-laid soil last year, driving distance doesn’t appear to give any distinct advantage. Despite an almost bottom placed distance of 62nd from those that made the cut, Branden Grace still finished ninth.
Francesco Molinari, never renowned for his distance off the tee, finished runner-up overall, but was enabled by being sixth in greens in regulation. Conversely, big-hitting Belgian, Nicolas Colsaerts, was only second to Scott Hend in distance and finished third overall. The 2012 Ryder Cup winner was 10th in GIR however, further lending credence to Wentworth being a second-shot course given similar discrepancies in driving accuracy across the top finishers.
Past champions present this week include the aforementioned Noren (defending) and Rory McIlroy (2014). Joining them are Chris Wood (2016), An Byeong-Hun (2015), Matteo Manassero (2013), and David Howell (2006).
The betting odds are unsurprisingly headed by McIlroy (8/1), with those meagre odds nonetheless drifting after a missed cut at TPC Sawgrass. A win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational indicates that the Holywood hero is still well equipped to dominate the field, but this is his first visit to Wentworth in three years. His previous four visits here from 2012 to 2015 read ‘MC-MC-1-MC’. At this price, back at your peril.
Two in-form Englishmen in Fleetwood and Casey follow at 14/1.
Both are worthy contenders, at 12th and 10th in the world rankings respectively. Since his huge Abu Dhabi Championship win, Fleetwood has gone on to contend at the Dubai Desert Classic and the Honda Classic. His last tournament saw him claim 7th at The Players, and the 27-year-old currently leads the entire PGA Tour in total driving.
Casey broke a near nine year barren streak in America by winning the Valspar Championship. With Ryder Cup aspirations on his mind, he visits Wentworth for the first time since 2013, with a string of fine finishes and stats to his name.
Noren and Grace round off the top five. Noren’s form has been a mixed bag, failing to make the weekend at the Wells Fargo and The Masters, but commendable weeks elsewhere leave him within touching distance of a good defence of his title. Grace arrives from Texas, where he made the podium in third at the AT&T Byron Nelson. The South African has two top tens in his five attempts here also.
So, a pretty strong contingent leads proceedings, but those who have been active on the European Tour in recent months will fancy their chances, including Andy Sullivan, Alexander Levy and Joost Luiten.
A string of in-form debutants are present also, and with An Byeong-Hun winning here on his maiden visit in 2015, the likes of Julien Guerrier, Eric van Rooyen and Harold Varner III won’t let unfamiliarity dissuade them.
Players such as Graeme McDowell, Lee Slattery, Mikko Ilonen, Robert Rock and Felipe Aguilar have failed to make the top ten at the BMW PGA in at least 10 appearances.
We’re going to plump for Tommy Fleetwood at a short 14/1.
His stats across the board this season – from scrambling to driving to scoring – have been exemplary. The 27-year-old was 6th here in 2015, and has already won on British soil, claiming the 2013 Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles.
Paul Dunne (30/1) has been unlucky not to win this season. The Wicklow man held the lead for long stretches at the Open de Espana, coming second to Jon Rahm. This was preceded by a superb pair of top eight finishes on the PGA Tour, fifth at the weakened Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship followed by 8th at the Shell Houston Open.
The 25-year-old’s last regulation outing saw him claim 7th at the Volvo China Open. Prior to the final round, he was just two shots back of Ian Poulter and one off of Alexander Bjork, both of whom won in Houston and China respectively. Despite these close calls, Paul can get the job done in England, as he proved in claiming last year’s British Masters, holding off none other than Rory McIlroy. He also won the Golf Sixes alongside compatriot Gavin Moynihan in nearby St. Albans earlier this month.
His approach statistics this season aren’t encouraging, but they are offset by some fine all-round form on the greens. Dunne finished 30th on his debut here last year.
Andy Sullivan at 40/1 could make his way to the business end of the event.
The formed Ryder Cup competitor hasn’t missed a cut since the Italian Open last year, and his last outings yielded a 7th and 3rd at the Trophee Hassan II and Sicilian Open respectively, as he trends towards a fourth professional win.
Consistent across the board in approach play and putting on the European Tour this season, Sullivan has made the top 30 at Wentworth in his last four visits.
Ross Fisher (80/1) likes it here, having finished in the top ten three times, most recently last year. The Englishman has improved after a tough few years, finishing runner-up at the Abu Dhabi Championship.
His finishes at the Wells Fargo and The Players were disappointing after some good starts, but around more familiar territory, Fisher, who has performed well tee-to-green in America, is worth a punt.