The European Tour PGA Championship has crowned many of the men who fueled the Continent’s return to golf prominence: Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros were all multiple winners. More recently, the title has been elusive for several of the tour’s top contemporaries. Count Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Justin Rose among them, with a combined six runner-up finishes. The tour’s flagship event begins Thursday at the Wentworth Club’s West Course in Surrey, England, about 30 miles southwest of London. Jeff Shain
Dispirited by his inability to mount a Sunday charge at the Masters, McIlroy returns to Europe looking to regain the positive momentum he had going into Augusta. The Northern Irishman acknowledged a spell of melancholy after that closing 74, binge-watching TV before his wife got him out of the house. Then he had to walk back wording that he “doesn’t care” about the United States Open or the British Open when he said the Masters was now the game’s biggest event. And this month, there was an early exit from the Players Championship. Back at Wentworth after two years away, McIlroy has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the event. He’s missed three of his past four cuts there and owns just two top-5 finishes in eight visits — but one was a victory in 2014.
The 40-year-old Englishman is set to end an even longer absence from Wentworth, from 2013, though a back injury that prompted him to withdraw before the Players Championship will bear watching. Ideally it’s only a hiccup in perhaps the most solid stretch of Casey’s star-crossed career. Finally healthy and with a happy home life (he remarried in 2015 after a difficult divorce in 2011), he owns 17 top-12 finishes in the past 15 months, including a four-year-drought-ending win at the Valspar Championship in which he held off Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed. After a few years away from the European Tour to focus on the home front — he’s lived in Arizona since his college days — Casey took out membership again this year with an eye on his first Ryder Cup participation since 2008.
Only three men have captured back-to-back titles at Wentworth — Faldo, Montgomerie and Luke Donald — and Noren’s quest might be complicated by the fact that he has spent all of 2018 playing in the United States. The Swede has proved to be a rather quick learner, though, with three top-3 finishes on the PGA Tour that include a playoff loss to Jason Day at Torrey Pines. After missing the cut at the Masters, he tied for 17th at The Players Championship. A year ago at the European Tour PGA Championship, Noren’s 10-under-par 62 on the final day propelled him from a seven-shot deficit to finish two ahead of Francesco Molinari. It was his second top-10 at the championship in three years, after just one in his first eight visits to Wentworth.
The pro from Thailand is enjoying a resurgence in which he has won three times worldwide since December, along with a pair of top-5 finishes in World Golf Championships events. He lurks just outside the top 30 in the world rankings, reaching a high of No. 29 two months ago. Aphibarnrat’s current run includes a victory at the World Super 6 Perth, where his match-play skills came to the forefront again in winning five consecutive six-hole matches. He also won the Paul Lawrie Match Play in 2015 and reached this year’s W.G.C. Match Play quarterfinals. Alas, the European Tour PGA Championship is a traditional stroke-play event, though Aphibarnrat’s tie for 14th a year ago was his best finish at Wentworth.
With the Ryder Cup being staged outside Paris this autumn, the European captain Thomas Bjorn could face some pressure to make sure France is represented on his side. Continued strong play by Levy would ease some of that fuss. The 27-year-old pro, born in California to French parents, won the Trophée Hassan II last month for his fifth European Tour victory. That capped a run featuring three other top-10 finishes in 2018, including fourth at the Dubai Desert Classic. Though Levy finds himself with some significant ground to make up to secure a Ryder Cup roster spot via performance, a victory in the tour’s flagship event could go a long way toward either closing the gap or planting a seed in Bjorn’s wild-card decision.
Arnold Palmer is the only American player to ever win the European Tour PGA Championship, in 1975 just a few years after the European Tour was formalized. Suri, who grew up in Florida and graduated from Duke, is a fast-rising long shot as he makes his debut at Wentworth. Suri is less than a year removed from a midseason promotion off the European Challenge Tour, after winning in the Czech Republic and finishing second in Portugal. He also won in Denmark, collecting eight top-10s worldwide in 2017. The high finishes haven’t been as frequent in 2018, though Suri tied for eighth at the Houston Open while playing on a sponsor exemption.