Els ahead on the makeover front - if not leaderboard
Sunday 28 May 2006
Don't mention the PGA. David Howell did the other day but managed to get away with it. The players may know what they are playing for here - the PGA Championship and its 52-year heritage - but spectators can be forgiven for feeling confused. Outside the club the road signs all point the way to the "PGA" but once at the venue the famous initials have disappeared.
What must the Professional Golfers' Association, the original owners of the title, be thinking? The new branding includes a meaningless PR slogan "The Players' Flagship". While the tournament can be described as the "flagship event of the European Tour", the new tag line is mumbo-jumbo, and a nonsense that might make another German company, Deutsche Bank, who sponsor the Players' Championship of Europe, wonder about copyright infringement.
To be fair to BMW, they are in for the long haul and have invested in upgrading the event and looking after the players. But it has been the Wentworth Club itself, under the new ownership of Richard Caring, which has made incredible efforts to modernise the West course. Always a monster, it has now been stretched to 7,308 yards with 30-odd new bunkers.
Their best decision was getting Ernie Els to mastermind the changes. Not only is the former Open champion highly respected and liked by his peers but is bigger than most of them. "No one has killed me yet," he said. No one would dare.
Els immersed himself in the venture while recovering from his knee injury last year. "It was going to be a four-year project," said Chris Kennedy, the chief greenkeeper, "but when Ernie got injured it became a four-month one."
The collaboration of two master craftsmen in Els and Kennedy would have made fascinating television, albeit only after the watershed.
With so much rain the course has been too soft to prevent low scoring by those at the top of the leaderboard. But Els's makeover has been unanimously applauded with only the odd criticism to satisfy the professional golfer's whingeing tendency.
Yesterday, Els made an untidy start with three bogeys in the first six holes, including at the sixth, where the new tee, 67 yards further back, is actually the fifth tee on the East course. He fought back well and finished with birdies at the 17th, where he reached the 610-yarder in two, and the 18th for a 69.
A six-times winner of the World Match Play here, Els has yet to win the PGA and at four under is off the pace again this year despite the extra local knowledge. It has still been a satisfying week.
"I felt we had done a good job but I'm glad the other players feel the same way," Els said. "To take a classic course and all the tradition, you don't want to mess it up. But at the same time the changes were needed. If the weather had been good, the course would have really shown its teeth."
There has always been a magical flow to Harry Colt's masterpiece and Els has managed to maintain it. But there may not be much more room for expansion. "We can't keep borrowing land from other courses and people's gardens," said Colin Montgomerie. "Someone has to do something about the ball."
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