The English golfer Danny Willett had a two-shot lead over Jon Rahm, the young Spanish sensation, as they approached the 18th tee in the final round of last year’s BMW P.G.A. Championship.
In the distance, Willett could see the massive grandstand ringing the green about 500 yards away. The seats were packed with fans who were cheering on their countryman at the Rolex Series tournament at the Wentworth Club in Virginia Water, England.
Under that pressure, Willett hit a drive down the fairway, and with 225 yards left he hit a 5-iron safely on to the green. He had a tap-in birdie putt for a three-stroke victory.
“Coming up against Johnny Rahm and playing some good golf that week felt amazing,” he said last week. “After hitting the second shot on the green, I was able to take it all in coming up 18, with that amphitheater filled with fans.”
The BMW championship is just below the four majors in importance on the European Tour schedule and is the third Rolex Series event of the 2020 Race to Dubai. The BMW championship historically attracts a strong field and tremendous fan support to the town, about an hour west of London.
Players come from around the world to an event held at the European Tour’s headquarters, a golf and residential complex that was once a private estate. Today, it has three 18-hole courses, a par-3 course and scores of houses on the grounds.
But this year is quite different. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in restrictions on travel and is requiring the rigorous testing of participants. Per most sporting events, the tournament will have no fans, but given the far-flung nature of the European Tour, maintaining a healthy field will require more vigilance.
“The challenge for us is that every one of our tournaments is an international event and, as such, entirely different to the domestic sports leagues that restarted in various countries before we were able to,” said Clare Bodel, a spokeswoman for the European Tour. “We had to develop a stringent testing and safety plan that would tie in with international government and public health guidance, which is often rapidly changing.”
More important for the competitors, though, is the strength of the field. And the 2020 field will not be as strong as in the past, with fewer top-ranked players coming from around the globe. Instead, the tournament is promoting the homegrown English golfers who are playing in it. Those include Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Justin Rose.
Top European players who were there last year but live in the United States won’t be playing. This includes Rory McIlroy, who lives in Florida, and Paul Casey and Rahm, who both live in Arizona.
Last year, Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, defeated Rahm. Rahm was one of 23 players in the top 50 world golf rankings to be at the tournament. There were an additional six major championship winners not in the top 50 in the field that week and a half dozen other players who had won Rolex Series or World Golf Championships events.
Billy Horschel of the United States attended his first BMW championship and posted the record low score for an American player in the tournament.
Horschel won’t be there this year. Nor will any other top-ranked American or Asian player. Only a dozen of the top 50 players are attending. By any other tournament’s standards, no one would be grousing. But this is a tournament with a storied history and platinum list of winners, including McIlroy, Francesco Molinari and Angel Cabrera.
The European Tour defended the strength of the field. “Entry into the BMW P.G.A. Championship, like all European Tour events, is by a player’s exemption category, not his nationality or residence,” Bodel said.
But the strength of the field raises the question of how to create high-level international golf events as long as the pandemic persists. If the BMW championship can’t do it, which nonmajor events can?
Willett, ranked 49th in the world this year, takes it in stride. “It is what it is,” he said. “You can only ever play against the guys who are there. To have to cancel 18 events and still be able to play these Rolex Series events is amazing.”
The travel requirement is tough on players, particularly with the BMW championship sandwiched between the United States Open and the Masters.
“It’s a difficult one, asking these guys to travel back and forth from the States,” Willett said. “Last year, these guys had downtime after the FedEx Cup, and guys like Billy Horschel and Andrew Putnam came over. Johnny Rahm was there. It’s still a solid field.”
The European Tour, which is more spread out geographically than the PGA Tour, tried to reduce travel for its players by grouping tournaments in its reconstituted schedule by region. There was a British swing in the summer followed by three tournaments on the Iberian Peninsula.
The BMW championship is part of a second British swing that includes the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open before it, and a new tournament, the Scottish Championship, afterward.
Willett, who lives in Florida, where he spent the lockdown, said he had adopted a similarly circumscribed tournament schedule. He flew up and back to the United States Open in New York and then over to Scotland for this leg of the European Tour. When he returns to the United States, he plans to play the three events leading into the Masters in November. Noting his more rigid travel schedule, he said, “It’s just been strange.”
Like all tour venues, the tournament has taken extra precautions. Ruth Scanlan, the marketing director for the club, declined to comment on how the community is preparing. But the European Tour’s protocols will be in place.
That means testing golfers before and after they arrive, and no fans. But it also means restrictions that prevent anyone in the tournament from interacting with residents at Wentworth or using the club’s facilities beyond golf.
“All players, caddies, staff and media must only travel between their accommodation and the golf course,” Bodel said. “They may not visit restaurants, shops, or any local businesses outside the bubble, and therefore not come into contact with the local residential population.”
For some, the more open field may turn out to be a benefit and a boost to their careers.
Garrick Higgo, a 21-year-old South African player, turned professional last year but secured provisional status on the European Tour only in February as the pandemic was gathering strength. Last month, he won the Open de Portugal by one stroke, for his first European Tour victory.
That win gave him status as a champion to play in the current British swing and future Rolex Series events. He finished 84th in the Irish Open and tied for 26th at the Scottish Open.
One thing that is different for a young player like Higgo is the chance to qualify for the British Open by playing well at the Irish or Scottish Open. When the British Open was canceled this year, the Open Qualifying Series, which allows golfers who are not exempt to play their way into the field, was also canceled. Normally, the Scottish Open attracts a strong field of players because it is the last shot to get into the Open.
Higgo, who is brimming with youthful confidence, likes his chances at the BMW championship. “I couldn’t be in a better place,” he said. “When I have fun, I play well. It’s the same South African guys I’ve seen around. Everyone is just more intense.”
The lack of fans, in particular, could be an advantage to him. “I’m used to five people watching me, not 1,000,” he said. “If there aren’t fans, then it takes some of the pressure off of me.”
As for Willett defending his BMW championship title, he said he was just grateful that any tournament field had been assembled. “For us guys playing worldwide, in this age and this climate,” he said, “to still be doing our job and competing, to still be able to play on the weekends, is amazing.”