WENTWORTH, England — Seven of the world’s top 10 players have assembled here this week for the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event of the European Tour.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the absent three in the stellar field of 150 are all American: Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, who aren’t playing anywhere this week, and Matt Kuchar, who is playing the HP Byron Nelson Championship. There are more ranking points available at the BMW than at the Nelson, a $1 million first prize, a total purse of $6.3 million, and 100,000 spectators are expected over the weekend. (President Obama, who has been staying at a nearby swanky residence called Buckingham Palace, will likely not be among them.)
Lee Westwood, No. 1 in the World Ranking, endured a truckload of criticism from American players and media when he chose not to compete at the recent Players Championship. He defended his corner vigorously but believes there is some hostility between the two tours.
“I do see it as Us vs. Them, and we are almost as guilty as they are of being too guarded about our own tour,” he said. “All the tours and federations should be pulling together for the good of golf. Getting all the best players together on the same week. Not going up against each other. If nobody does anything about it, golf will struggle, sponsors will drop out. Think of the big picture.”
Westwood is well aware that his status as the world’s best player gives his voice gravitas. He used it on the eve of the BMW PGA Championship when asked if it was a shame to see none of the top American players here.
“It would be nice to see a few of the younger Americans come over and support the event,” Westwood said. “It’s disappointing. It’s a big event with a strong field. The only thing missing is a few Americans. It’s 15 minutes from Heathrow airport if you don’t like a long drive.”
It’s the long flight that seems to be the problem.
Players ranked in the top 50 are eligible to enter the tournament, but the only two Americans in this leafy part of Surrey are John Daly and Anthony Kang. The former received a special invitation because, well, he’s special. The latter is a member of the European Tour and only famous in his own house. Ben Curtis played the event a few times after winning the British Open in 2003 , and Arnold Palmer won the tournament in 1975 when it was played at Royal St George’s. But since the championship moved to Wentworth in the early 1980s, American players have barely given it a thought.
But now that the axis of power in world golf has shifted toward Europe, perhaps Americans will start to come in search of ranking points. “We’ll find out, won’t we?” Westwood said. He recognized that Colonial and the Nelson are big tournaments in the States but pointed out that golf is a world game now.
“The game is global, and you have to accept that; you have to travel around the world to test yourself in different places,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve always tried to play.”
Westwood’s position as No. 1 will be threatened again this week. No. 2 Luke Donald missed an opportunity to usurp his countryman last week by losing the Volvo World Match Play Championship final to Ian Poulter in Spain. Donald will get another chance at No. 1 this week, as will No. 3 Martin Kaymer.
Kaymer, for one, has no doubt who the best player is.
“The way he is playing, Luke Donald deserves to be the No. 1,” he said.
Donald has 13 top 10s in his last 14 tournaments and has amassed almost $10 million in prize money. So who does Donald think is the best? “I think I’m the most consistent right now,” he said. “I’ve proven that over the last few months. It’s a fun topic. There has not been a world ranking for a long time where it’s been this close.”
But Donald was quick to emphasize that getting to the summit is not the end of expedition. “It would be a great achievement, but it doesn’t mean I’ve made it and can just stop working and put my clubs away,” he said.
Donald’s playing partner’s for the first two rounds are U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Simon Khan, the defending champion here. Westwood goes out with Alvaro Quiros and Retief Goosen. Kaymer, the reigning PGA Champion, has the company of Justin Rose and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
If the U.S. PGA Championship is the fourth major, Europe’s equivalent can surely make a case that it, not the Players Championship, is the fifth major.