The BMW P.G.A. Championship begins on Thursday at the Wentworth Club in England, a venue created from a grand country estate that was once in the Duke of Wellington’s family and is steeped in golfing history. The tournament that became the Ryder Cup was played there in 1926.
Many legends, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo have tested themselves on the West Course.
In the village of Virginia Water, about an hour southwest of London, Wentworth was originally the home of the brother-in-law of the famous duke. The West Course, which was completed in 1926, was designed by Harry Colt, and the head offices of the European Tour are still there.
In 1926, the tree-lined course hosted an event between a group of American players who were in the country for the Open Championship and a team from Britain. Dreamed up by Samuel Ryder, a businessman and golf enthusiast, the match was played at Wentworth and at the time was called the Ryder Cup.
It was considered a friendly competition and not officially counted as a match. The first official Ryder Cup, now held every other year between the United States and Europe, was played the next year in Worcester, Mass.
Wentworth held the Ryder Cup in 1953, but to many golf fans the club will always be remembered for hosting the World Match Play Championship, which it held from 1964 to 2007.
Staged each October, shown live on the BBC and often played in challenging autumnal conditions, each match was played over 36 holes, a test of stamina as much as skill. Though it later expanded to 16 players, it began as an eight-man knockout event, with Palmer the first champion, beating Neil Coles of England in the final.
Ernie Els, who won the event seven times and later helped to redesign the West Course, loved Wentworth long before he got to see it himself.
“The history speaks for itself, especially the World Match Play,” Els said in an interview. “All the great players played there. Growing up in South Africa, we’d read all about Gary and Jack and Arnold winning there. Then watching Greg, Seve, Faldo, [Sandy] Lyle and Woosie [Ian Woosnam] in the 1980s. It was an iconic tournament and venue.
“I loved the way the golf course looked and the sound of the shots echoing in the forest there,” Els said. “What a sound. So when I started playing there in the early 1990s, it was a huge thrill.”
In 1984, Wentworth began hosting the P.G.A. Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour. With the first tee right outside the clubhouse, the West Course opens with a tight par 4, to a testing, small green, and for the players, there is no letup as they wind their way through the Wentworth estate.
“I think it’s a great golf course,” Jon Rahm of Spain told Sky Sports last year. “That’s why I love coming back to Europe to play these traditional-style golf courses, where they are not long, on paper, ideally, they are not overly complicated, but things can get difficult for a player real quick.”
It’s a test throughout, but it’s the last two holes, with back-to-back par 5s, that offer the opportunity for players to make up shots. In the Match Play of 1983, Ballesteros chipped in for eagle from 50 yards at the 18th to level his match with Palmer, going on to beat him in a playoff. As Palmer told reporters: “I should be mad. But I’ve done that to so many other people in the past I suppose I can’t complain.”
In 2007, Els oversaw extensive rebunkering, and the course was lengthened by 310 yards. He later improved the drainage with the addition of a system to control the moisture in the greens, whatever the weather.
“When I started playing there in the early 1990s, it was still very much the original golf course,” Els said. “Obviously a wonderful golf course, a beautiful tree-lined layout. But the course is clay-based, and the greens and fairways would hold a lot of water, so that caused problems. The irrigation and drainage was nonexistent.
“There was a lot that needed changing, improving, modernizing, and we went in there and did everything basically.” he said. “The club’s owners wanted to present it as one of the world’s premier inland golf courses and a world-class venue for championship golf. And we’ve done that.”
Els described the West Course as “a proper, all-round test of golf.”
“The bunkers are deep, and the trees come into play, so you’ve got to drive it well,” he said.
“You have to hit your irons well. You have to be on form, and you’ve got to do it for four rounds, so it favors the high-caliber player.”