On current form it looks like the impossible dream but Darren Clarke would dearly love to to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first appearance in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth with a victory. But can he end a 54-year Irish jinx in the PGA? The first and last Irishman to pull it off was Harry Bradshaw at Llandudno in 1958 when it was a closed championship.
Since then Ireland has had many close calls in the PGA with Christy O’Connor finishing runner up to Peter Alliss at Little Aston in 1962 before Hugh Boyle came home three strokes adrift of Malcolm Gregson at Hunstanton in 1967.
Eamonn Darcy was second to Arnold Palmer and Neil Coles respectively at Royal St George’s in 1975 and 1976. On the latter occasion, The Darce was in a three-way play-off with Coles and Gary Player.
Sitting comfortably in the clubhouse after a closing 68, the then 23-year old from Delgany watched Player throw the tournament away and then go out at the first extra hole. Darcy felt he had the title sewn up when he holed a 20 footer for a birdie at the second but Coles held firm to match him from six feet.
On they went before Coles, then 41, took the title at the third when Darcy’s second ended up plugged in a greenside trap and he couldn’t save par. Player, for the record, complained that he was against sudden-death play-offs. “I just don’t like them,” the South African moaned. “You play 72 holes and suddenly it becomes a one-hole tournament.” It was little wonder after his a 16th loss in 18 play-offs.
Ireland had four of the top eight that year with Christy O’Connor and John O’Leary also featuring. But it was another decade before an Irishman would go close again when Des Smyth lost to Rodger Davis in a play-off at Wentworth.
Smyth looked like a winner when he posted 281 but Davis holed a 25 footer at the 18th to tie. Smyth then drove out of bounds at the second tie hole, the 17th, as Davis escaped a similar fate when his drive hit a tree and rebounded into play.
Six years later, a 23-year old Clarke – then a fledgling professional on The European Tour having just completed his rookie season in 1991 – lined up at Wentworth Club for the first time.
It was a PGA Championship littered with star names including Major Champions Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, and was won eventually by Zimbabwe’s Tony Johnstone, but Clarke held his own with rounds of 70-72-71-75 for a level par total of 288 and a share of 54th place.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of his first appearance, Clarke, himself now a Major winner having claimed The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George’s last July, is ready for another tilt at the BMW PGA Championship from May 24-27, a title he would dearly love to add to his already impressive golfing CV.
“I think if you ask any player on The European Tour to pick one event outside the Majors that they’d want to win one day it would be the BMW PGA Championship and I am no exception,” he said.
“Obviously to do it on the 20th anniversary of my first playing in the tournament would be extra sweet but I’m under no illusions about the task in hand because the field is always one of the strongest of the entire year.
“I can’t really believe it is 20 years since I played for the first time – time really does fly by when you are having fun. If I’m being honest though, I can’t really remember much about my debut in 1992 but what I do remember was thinking that if I’d qualified to play at Wentworth, I really must have arrived on The European Tour.
“What I do know now though is that the tournament has become bigger and better in every aspect over these 20 years and much more so of late with BMW on board as a title sponsor.
“They have taken everything about the championship to a higher level and it is fantastic that we have a sponsor such as BMW on The European Tour, not just for the championship at Wentworth, but for the other tournaments they do as well. They put on an awesome show.”
Clarke has come close to victory in The European Tour’s flagship event on a number of occasions over the seasons, finishing in the top ten on five occasions in the eight years between 1997 and 2004.
He finished second to Ian Woosnam in 1997 and second again to Colin Montgomerie in 2000 while he also picked up a fourth place in 2004 when Montgomerie’s fellow Scot Scott Drummond triumphed.
“I have come close a couple of times and it is a course I feel I can compete on,” he said. “I’ve always liked the golf course and it has always been demanding, but it is a really tough challenge nowadays after the changes Ernie made to it.
“In the past, on the odd occasion, you used to see people finish perhaps birdie, eagle, eagle to suddenly burst into contention, but with the changes that is a lot harder to do nowadays. It is a much tougher test than it used to be.”
Clarke will form part of a star-studded line-up for the tournament which includes the current top three players on the Official World Golf Ranking; Number One Rory McIlroy and Numbers Two and Three Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the men who contested the thrilling play-off for the title last May with Donald edging it on the first extra hole with a birdie four.