Two weeks removed from an intense and controversial U.S. Open, the PGA Tour moves from the northeast to the mid-Atlantic, as Tiger Woods hosts the 11th edition of the Quicken Loans National.
Unlike the past two years, Tiger will not just be hosting, he will be playing, and he is joined by other great professionals, including Rickie Fowler, Marc Leishman, and defending champion Kyle Stanley.
There are many storylines worth a mention this week, but here are five of the best:
1. STANLEY DEFENDS
Kyle Stanley was exceptionally emotional when he defeated Charles Howell III in a playoff to win the Quicken Loans National. It was easy to understand why. Stanley was once a hot-shot youngster, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2012 as a 24-year-old, erasing a final round 8-shot deficit just one week after he had blown a 6-shot Sunday lead of his own.
It was a win that epitomized resilience. Unfortunately, it would be years before the golf world saw anything resembling that version of Stanley again. From 2014-2016, Stanley managed just one top 10 total, which was a T8 at an opposite-field event. He missed the FedExCup Playoffs in two of those three seasons and dropped outside the World’s top 400.
As he had shown in 2012, however, Stanley is a resilient man. His results prodigiously improved, and he even posted a T4 at THE PLAYERS Championship. He looked like he was close to back. And then to win again, the way he did? A cathartic victory cry was unavoidable.
Stanley has mostly kept his good form in 2018. He has yet to win PGA tournament No. 3, but he did have a runner-up less than one month ago at The Memorial Tournament. He also has three additional top 10s.
One word that describes Stanley’s current season best might be “accurate”. On a Tour full of shot makers, Stanley currently ranks third on Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation. That kind of accuracy is especially conducive to success at the type of challenge TPC Potomac presents. Stanley could be just four rounds away from the first successful title defense in Quicken Loans National history.
2. TIGER’S DOUBLE DUTY
As tournament host of the 11-year-old event, Tiger Woods has maintained a presence at the Quicken Loans National in the past two editions, despite not being healthy enough to play. Now, that his back is finally competition-ready, the 79-time PGA Tour winner might be looking at his best chance yet to get back into the winner’s circle for the first time since 2013.
As the biggest name in a field with a paucity of them, this could be a real opportunity.
Tiger has now played in ten events since coming back to Tour, and the results have been very mixed. The Tiger-Fever that re-infected the golf world back in March after a 12-T2-T5 stretch has been largely pacified, and the realization has settled in that perhaps expectations had gotten too high again.
Since that fifth place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the events he has traditionally dominated, Tiger’s name has barely graced leaderboards. He was a pedestrian T32 at The Masters, T23 at The Memorial, and even though he was T11 at THE PLAYERS Championship, he was never really in the mix, making the cut on the number before getting hot on the weekend.
Tiger struggled early in the year to hit fairways, and has improved there, but in his past two events, his putting has fallen off a cliff. His last outing was very disappointing, as the three-time U.S. Open champion went 78-72 (+10) and missed the cut at Shinnecock Hills.
That is not to say that all is bad. His iron game has shown flashes of prime tiger, and he currently ranks 4th on Tour in both strokes gained: approach-the-green and strokes gained: around-the-green. If he can get his head back together on the greens, he has shown a game that absolutely can win again.
With the weakest field he has faced in his comeback, the two-time Quicken Loans National winner (2009, 2012) could see his drought end this week.
3. RICKIE, THE STRONG FAVORITE
With so much top-end talent on the PGA Tour, it seems that rarely there is a tournament with a favorite that is absolutely head and shoulders above the rest of the field, but there is a good argument that is exactly what we are looking at with the Quicken Loans National this week.
Rickie Fowler is considered the man to beat, and then some. At No. 8 in the world, Fowler is the only member of the top 15 in the field, and is one of just four in the top 30 in the field. Needless to say, expectations are very high.
When Rickie last teed up competitively, he was putting together perhaps the most up-and-down weekend in major championship history at the U.S. Open. Going into the third round, he was in a tie for ninth place and it looked like he would make another serious run at his first career major.
In the brutal Saturday conditions, he was the environment’s biggest victim, shooting a 14-over 84 that included zero birdies, five bogeys, three doubles, and one triple.
Playing in a significantly less stressful Sunday situation, Fowler bounced back nicely in round four while paired early in the day with Phil Mickelson, posting a 5-under 65, 19 strokes better than what he had shot less than 24 hours prior.
So, which Rickie should be expect to see at TPC Potomac this week? Well, almost definitely not the U.S. Open Saturday version. Despite that epically poor round at Shinnecock Hills, Fowler is in the midst of another above-average season. He has not yet won, unless you count Tiger’s 18-man December event in The Bahamas, but he does have a pair of runner-ups, with one of those coming at The Masters.
In his last six starts, a missed cut at THE PLAYERS is his only result outside of the top 21. He is 12th on Tour in scoring average, and is not lacking in any of the major statistical areas. He will still likely need to bring his best game to meet expectations, though.
4. HEAT CHECK: 3 TRAVELERS RUNNER-UPS
When deciphering who in the Quicken Loans National field stands the best chance of emerging as champion, one factor that would be intelligent to weigh heavily is recent form.
This field contains a plethora of golfers who have played well as of late, but there are three that stand-out extra, after very high finishes at last week’s Travelers Championship, at a TPC River Highlands course that draws comparisons to what will be played this week in Maryland.
Cink, a 45-year-old Georgia Tech product, has mostly struggled on Tour since 2011 with just 10 top-10 finishes in 178 starts. He has not won since his playoff takedown of the legendary Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship, but if he brings his recent form to Potomac, that drought could very well come to an end.
Cink finished runner-up at the Travelers Championship, following three consecutive 68s with a sizzling Sunday 62. That 62, which tied for the field low of the week, included 10 birdies. He was tremendous for the week off the tees and on the greens.
Cink preceded his Travelers Championship T2 with a T4 in his previous event, the FedEx St. Jude Classic. His irons and wedges were clicking at TPC Southwind, and he had the highlight of the tournament when he recorded a Saturday ace on the par-3 8th hole.
Like Cink, Holmes’ co-runner up finish at the Travelers Championship was the recent result in a hot stretch, as he finished third and T13 at his previous two starts, respectively. Holmes has made his name as a bomber, but at TPC River Highlands, he showed precision with his irons and wedges, ranking third in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.
The 36-year-old has not played his best over the past two seasons, but hopes that this recent trend will continue for a fourth straight tournament. The two-time Ryder Cup participant would like to put an end to a winless drought that dates back to the 2015 Shell Houston Open.
At 23 years old, the former University of Texas star Hossler does not have the experience of Cink or Holmes, but few on Tour have flashed more pure talent this season.
Also a runner-up in Connecticut, Hossler went low on Thursday (65) for the third straight week, and then kept the momentum going through the weekend.
He has now made 10 consecutive cuts, with two of those resulting in runner-ups, also taking Ian Poulter to a playoff at April’s Houston Open. Already one of the best putters on Tour, Hossler has a game that should translate to wins on a variety of courses.
5. TWO INTERNATIONALS SEEKING MAIDEN PGA TOUR TITLE
Among the elites not taking the week off entirely, many are in France for this week’s European Tour event, the HNA Open de France.
The prestigious tournament is of interest to many players as it is the third of seven Rolex Series events, and it happens to be taking place at the same course that will be hosting the Ryder Cup in September.
Notable names taking part include Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, and Ian Poulter.
However, there are two excellent regulars on the European Tour, both of whom are currently in the top five of the Race to Dubai Standings, who are passing on the glitz and glamor of Paris for the Quicken Loans National, and both are accomplished players seeking their first victory on the PGA Tour:
At No. 17 in the world, Molinari, a 35-year-old Italian, is the second highest ranked player in the field, trailing only Fowler. His presence that high on the OWGR might be a shock to some, but the ball-striking wizard from Turin has earned that lofty standing.
Molinari has looked especially stout as of late. A month ago, he won the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship by two strokes over Rory McIlroy and three over Alex Noren, two players who rank among the top 16 in the current world standings. He followed up that victory, the fifth of his career with a runner-up effort at the Italian Open the very next week, putting together four consecutive rounds of 66 or better.
More recently, Molinari teed up at Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open, where he finished a respectable T25 and ranked fifth in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
This will be Molinari’s first try at TPC Potomac, and given that he is an exceptional driver of the ball, he stands a great chance in this field. He has not yet won on the PGA Tour, but has had a number of close calls, including a T2 at last year’s PGA Championship.
At No. 30 in the world, the only players at TPC Potomac with a better ranking are Fowler, Molinari, and Marc Leishman. The well-traveled 28-year-old from Thailand has won eight times internationally, with three of those coming in the past seven months.
His last four starts include three top-15s, and most recently, he finished solo-15th at the U.S. Open, bouncing back from a first round 76 to get into contention entering Sunday. Also tallying T-5s at the WGC-Mexico Championship, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a T13 at The Memorial, Aphibarnrat has been getting close to a breakthrough in a PGA-sponsored event.
He will be among the favorites at the Quicken Loans National, and has the strong all-around game that could allow him to outduel anyone in the field. It would help if he plays off the tees the way he did at Shinnecock Hills, when he hit all 14 fairways in rounds 2 and 3.