Still chasing Brad's record in Europe's Wentworth reunion
Rory McIlroy will lead a strong Irish challenge for the BMW PGA title.
An unusually strong gathering of Europe's leading players, from the present and recent past, won't include Pádraig Harrington for this week's £4.75m BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. The three-time Major winner withdrew yesterday from the challenge of the famous West Course, which doesn't rank among his favourite golfing stretches.
Christy O'Connor loved it, to the extent of setting a record aggregate of 274 there when capturing the Daks Tournament in 1959. And he went on to win at Wentworth for a third time in the Martini five years later. Unfortunately for Himself, however, the PGA didn't arrive there until 1972.
This week's line-up for the year's only tour event in England includes the entire European Ryder Cup team which gained such a dramatic triumph at Medinah last September. Which means that Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will be leading a 10-man Irish challenge.
But for Harrington, who carded uninspiring rounds of 76-79 to miss last year's cut, it will be part of a fortnight off before he heads to the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis, prior to the US Open.
As a quid pro quo to the European Tour for missing Wentworth, Harrington has entered the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in July. Ideally, he wanted his preparation for the Open at Muirfield to be in the Irish PGA Championship, provided the organisers could get a links in the Dublin area, but the only course available to them was the links at Rosses Point.
Strong Irish challenges for the PGA Championship over the years have failed to deliver a winner of this iconic title since Harry Bradshaw triumphed at Llandudno in 1958. And there could hardly be a better time for matching his success than in this, the centenary year of his birth, on October 9 to be precise.
Bradshaw's victory came at a time better remembered for the Munich air disaster in which eight members of the Manchester United team were killed. With rounds of 72-71-73-71 over the Maesdu Course in North Wales, Portmarnock's much-loved professional secured the last important individual win of his tournament career.
Starting the final round two strokes behind local favourite, Dai Rees, The Brad had drawn level by the 15th where he sank a 20-foot putt for a birdie three, against a bogey from the Welshman. Then, on the short 17th, Bradshaw holed from six feet for a par before Rees missed from a foot closer. It was all over, with O'Connor filling third position.
As a spectator course, tree-lined Wentworth has its faults. In fact Pat Ward-Thomas, the great British golf writer, slated it as "the most tiresome for watching that I know." But it is a wonderful test, especially the finishing stretch where the design skills of Ernie Els have enhanced appreciably the original layout by Harry Colt.
Parkland golf has few more searching par fours than the 12th (490 yards), 13th (470) and 15th (489), while the long 17th (610) and 18th (539) make for a marvellous finish, throwing up a variety of scoring possibilities. Indeed it demands such precision that it is hardly surprising to find Luke Donald attempting to emulate Colin Montgomerie (1998-2000) by completing a hat-trick of victories next weekend. Despite decidedly patchy form this year, McIlroy is gradually getting the feel of his new equipment and will be among the favourites for a handsome top prize of €791,660.
"The Ryder Cup at Medinah was so special, that I don't think anyone associated with the team will ever get tired of celebrating it," he said. "So, it will be great to be part of this reunion at Wentworth."
Fellow Northerner, McDowell, is equally enthusiastic. "To have been part of Europe's biggest-ever comeback was just an amazing honour and I'm sure there'll be a nice Ryder Cup vibe around the West Course," said the recent winner of the RCB Heritage Tournament at Harbour Town.
Another Ryder Cup hero, Justin Rose, who lost to Anders Hansen in a Wentworth play-off in 2007 and was tied second last year, enthused: "This is our big show, the one where we display what our Tour is all about. It's one that I think every player has an eye on throughout the year and one that we all get going for."
The last time Europe achieved a comparable Ryder Cup comeback in the US was in 1995 at Oak Hill. It, too, had a follow-up on this side of the pond when 11 of the team – Nick Faldo being the exception – flew into Dublin Airport on Concorde to compete in the inaugural Smurfit European Open at The K Club. And there were actually 12 Ryder Cup players in action, through the inclusion of Tom Lehman from the defeated American side.
Illness kept Jose Maria Olazabal out of the 1995 matches, but as the triumphant skipper at Medinah, he will have the opportunity this week of reliving some of those precious memories. "Medinah was an unforgettable experience for everyone who was there, whether as a player, captain or spectator," he said. "Now those team members have the chance of showing what they can do as individuals."
Of the players who delivered last September's triumph, however, none will be looking more to the support of team colleagues than Sergio Garcia, who is returning to Wentworth for the first time since 2000.
Not renowned for his diplomacy, Garcia could hardly have picked a worse time for what American observers described as an 'epic choke' than the climactic minutes at Sawgrass last Sunday.
Tied for the lead on the 71st tee, the Spaniard frittered shots away with rare profligacy to finish in a tie for eighth place behind Tiger Woods, cutting his reward to almost $1.5m less than the American in the process. All of which came after a public slating of Woods as not being the most amenable of playing partners. As foot-shooting exercises go, it could hardly have been clumsier.
For the demands of Wentworth's par fours, O'Connor extracted maximum value from a trusty two-iron which, he once told me, he used like a wand. As a consequence, Ward-Thomas was moved to write of his Martini victory: "At its finest, there is a compelling quality about O'Connor's golf. Within the bounds of good judgement, he will always go for the shots."
With Shane Lowry in a strong supporting role to McIlroy and McDowell, it is time for an Irish successor to stamp comparable authority on one of golf's great venues. And to bridge an unreasonable gap since the The Brad's exploits of six decades ago.