PGA Championship: 'Wentworth like its old self as European Tour set for huge week'

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Chris Wood wins 2016 PGA Championship
BMW PGA Championship
Venue: Wentworth Dates: 25-28 May
Coverage: Score updates on Radio 5 live plus highlights from 18:00 BST on BBC Two, Saturday 27 & Sunday 28 May

Defending champion Chris Wood predicts lower scoring at this week's PGA Championship at Wentworth.

But success will not only be measured on scorecards at Britain's biggest golf gathering outside the Open Championship.

This is a huge week for the European Tour as they use the Wentworth tournament to launch an elevated strata of events designed to compete with the might of the PGA Tour.

And be in no doubt, the American circuit's influence continues to grow. It is relentlessly dominant and ready to make its already wealthy players even richer.

So, on this side of the pond, the £5.4m Wentworth extravaganza needs to succeed as it tees up the newly branded Rolex Series of elite events on the European Tour.

This week should prove a turning point after recent PGAs left disgruntled players muttering about the West Course's suitability to hold such tournaments.

"There were murmurs a couple of years ago if we didn't do something drastic that the Tour could look elsewhere," Stephen Gibson, Wentworth's CEO, told BBC Sport.

"I don't think they have reason to now."

Gibson has overseen more than £5m worth of investment, which has been poured into renovating the West Course over the past year.

All 18 greens have been relaid with 007 creeping bentgrass, while sub-air technology, as used at Augusta, has been installed under every putting surface to control moisture.

Defending champion Wood agrees. The Bristolian shot nine under par to claim the biggest title of his career, and is convinced a lower score will be required for a successful title defence.

"I hope the changes don't affect my results too much," said a smiling Wood, who has been a consistent Wentworth performer in recent years.

"But they are really good changes and the big thing is the condition of the greens. They really needed looking at and you can't fault them.

"The greens are a shot easier purely because of the surfaces and I think the bunkers are not so severe."

There are 25% fewer bunkers, and those that remain are shallower and easier to get out of.

Chris Wood plays from a bunker during the 2016 PGA Championship at Wentworth
There are fewer bunkers in an effort to make the course fairer and encourage lower scoring

"Guys can hit irons onto the greens now instead of having to lay up," Wood told me.

"And that feeds back to the tee, where people will think, 'actually, I don't mind going in that bunker now, so I'll be a little bit more aggressive with my drive'. I can see lower scores."

Wood does not see any problem with that, but back in 2009 it was felt the West Course had become too easy.

Ernie Els' design team sought to toughen up the layout where the average winning score had been nearly 15 under. In the following seven years, that average fell to 11.6 under despite An Byeong-hun's record 21-under victory in 2015.

The changes were unpopular. Wentworth lost its charm and became a slog for anyone other than the best players.

Now it is more like its old self, and Wood believes players and fans will be delighted.

"You finish with two par-fives and there should be the opportunity for a birdie/eagle finish to change the tournament and that's not really been there the last few years," he said.

"For people watching, that takes away a lot of the drama and entertainment, so I'm quite happy to see lower scores."

European Tour boss Keith Pelley concurs.

"I think people love to see birdies, love to see long drives," he told BBC Sport. "In terms of the score, I'm not fussed by that."

Fans will see the biggest changes on the eighth, 11th, 14th and 16th greens, which have been completely remodelled.

The biggest improvement is at the eighth, where the putting surface has been lowered closer to the water level in front and left of the green.

A ludicrously deep bunker to the right has disappeared and is replaced by subtle mounding, more in keeping with the original design ethos.

"We created something which I believe is what the players wanted, and brought it back to that old Harry Colt design with some modernisation to it," Pelley added.

"The professionals say it is far more playable. It is definitely an elite golf course but also I think the members will really enjoy playing it."

Most important will be whether the new design provides a fitting stage for one of the tour's biggest tournaments.

It has attracted a strong field but Rory McIlroy's absence through a recurrence of his rib injury is a big blow.

His initial commitment was significant because the world number two gave immediate and vocal backing to the concept of the new Rolex Series, even though he is a paid ambassador for a rival luxury watchmaker.

Now the series will begin in the absence of the tour's biggest star, but it helps that July's Irish Open, backed by McIlroy's charitable foundation, also features, as do the French, Scottish, Italian and Turkish Opens.

"We want to say, 'look we play in iconic cities and great venues'," Pelley added. "The golf course itself is absolutely critical and that's why the changes at Wentworth were so imperative."

Seve Ballesteros
Wentworth has hosted the PGA Championship every year since 1984, with the late Seve Ballesteros the winner in 1991

Creating a viable alternative to the PGA Tour is Pelley's primary objective, and he remains optimistic about the progress being made.

"Maybe you don't have to go to America," he said.

"When you look at the fields for our Rolex Series events compared to the previous years, the strength of field is stronger across the board. That's a positive sign."

But the competitive environment becomes no easier for Pelley and his Wentworth-based colleagues.

The PGA Tour recently unveiled a massive new deal for their FedEx Cup play-offs which currently carries a $10m (£7.7m) first prize.

"Just wait until we announce the increase in prize money," a leading official told me last week. "It will blow your mind."

Furthermore, the Florida organisation has pitched its stars and stripes in the European Tour's backyard by opening an office in central London.

This is aimed at making it easier to further develop sponsor ties and broadcast deals on Pelley's turf.

Be under no illusion, this is a vital week for his European Tour to demonstrate its wares and put on a tournament fit for the world's best, regardless of how low the scoring might be.

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