The fields have not been especially impressive during the PGA Tour’s recent three-week post-Masters swoon, but that changes this week, as nine of the world’s top 15, plus fan favorites Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, convene at Quail Hollow Country Club, the site of this week’s Wells Fargo Championship.
With the meat of the Tour schedule coming up very soon, many elite players have circled this week on their calendars, desperate to use it as a tuneup for the Players Championship.
Here are a few of the more intriguing storylines this week in North Carolina:
1. BRIAN HARMAN DEFENDS
Last year’s Wells Fargo Championship resulted in Brian Harman’s second career victory, which he pulled off impressively with four birdies over his last seven holes. Even more impressively, he held off a fast-charging Dustin Johnson on Sunday, a man who had won his previous three starts. It was the best finish in a two-month hot streak for Harman, which culminated in a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open where he held the 54-hole lead.
While he carries the moniker “defending champion” coming into this year’s Wells Fargo Championship, it is not a standard defense, as last year’s edition was held at a different course than usual, Eagle Point Golf Club, since Quail Hollow was being prepped for the PGA Championship.
Still, he should carry the win with pride, and use it to propel him to even more success this week. It should also help him that he played that PGA Championship well, finishing T13 with three of his four rounds being played at par or better. Now, he comes back to Quail Hollow course that isn’t prepped for a major championship and against a weaker field than the majors draw.
The 31-year-old Georgia product got his 2018 season off to a fantastic start, finishing in the top 8 of his first five starts. Since January, he has not been quite as hot, but he had added an additional two top-10s, both coming in World Golf Championship events, giving him seven in just 13 starts.
And as the PGA Tour has become accustomed to see, Harman has been a technician and a short game wizard. He currently ranks 12th on Tour in driving accuracy, 7th in greens in regulation, and 6th in strokes gained: putting.
In the tournament’s 15-year history, only Rory McIlroy has multiple wins, and if Harman plays with the same grit he showed last year, it could be he and Rory on the top of the wins list at week’s end.
2. JT RETURNS TO QUAIL HOLLOW
Brian Harman might be the Wells Fargo Championship’s official defending champion, but the Quail Hollow return of World No. 2 Justin Thomas might be even more significant. The last time the PGA Tour was at Quail Hollow was for last August’s PGA Championship, where the then 23-year-old Thomas captured his first major championship in a brilliant two-stroke effort over Patrick Reed, Francesco Molinari, and Louis Oosthuizen.
It was the crowning achievement in Thomas’ five-win 2017 season, and made him an easy choice for PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Thomas is still aiming to reach the top spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he could do it this week with a win, but one list he does top is the current FedExCup Standings. In 11 events this season, Thomas has two victories among five top-10s, and has already earned over $5 million. He is currently second on Tour in scoring average, trailing only World No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Thomas is coming off of a missed cut at last week’s Zurich Classic, the only event this year where he has failed to reach the weekend, but it was a team event (he was paired with Bud Cauley) so it is difficult to determine whether much of anything could be drawn from that event.
World No. 3 Jordan Spieth and world No. 4 Jon Rahm, also missed the cut. Thomas has played the Wells Fargo twice, with a high finish of T7 in the 2015 edition.
3. TIGER’S BACK IN ACTION
After his first start at The Masters in three years, 14-time major champion Tiger Woods announced that he would be taking a little time off. That time ended up being just three weeks, as the Wells Fargo Championship was elated to have Tiger add them to his schedule.
He will be playing Quail Hollow for the first time since a missed cut in 2012, he was the event champion in 2007 and finished solo-fourth in 2009.
The Wells Fargo Championship will be the seventh start on the Tiger Woods comeback Tour, after the legend was forced to sit out a year after multiple back surgeries, with his first six starts being mostly successful.
A T23 at the Farmers Insurance Open was a good result considering the long layoff, and the missed cut at the Genesis Open three weeks later was still forgivable. However, Tiger created immense excitement over his next three events with three consecutive quality results: a 12th place finish at the Honda Classic, a runner-up at the Valspar Championship, and a T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He did not quite look like prime Tiger in that stretch, but his short game was sharp, and he looked his best in five years.
Perhaps expectations were too high for Tiger going into The Masters, where he was among the betting favorites, but a T32 was mildly disappointing given his great recent form. Still, Tiger played the weekend at Augusta under par, and even more importantly, he has stayed healthy. He continues to be the biggest draw everywhere he goes, and nobody would be surprised if he contends at Quail Hollow this week.
4. KOEPKA’S FIRST SOLO START
Last week’s Zurich Classic marked the return to competitive golf for reigning U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka, who had not played since a disastrous last place finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January, due to a troublesome wrist injury that had clearly been hurting his play.
After getting his feet wet again in New Orleans, the verdict on Koepka’s current state is… undetermined. Koepka was a late addition to the Zurich, a team event, and had to scramble to find a partner, having to settle for Marc Turnesa, a man coming off a terrible season on the Web.com Tour (171st on their money list with less than $10,000 in earnings), who had not finished in the top 20 of a PGA Tour event since 2012.
Koepka carried the duo in round one’s best ball format, being responsible for five of their six birdies in a 5-under 67, but round two’s alternate shot format, proved much more difficult, as he and Turnesa hacked their way to a 6-over 78 and missed the cut by five strokes.
With the Wells Fargo being an individual event, this week should provide a better barometer for the state of Koepka’s game.
This will be the event debut for the 27-year-old two-time PGA Tour winner, but he has said in the past that he plays better off rest, so perhaps he will not have as much rust to shake off as most players would. At the very least, he wants to see some improvement before teeing it off at THE PLAYERS Championship in two weeks.
5. RORY’S COURSE
Put simply: Rory has dominated Quail Hollow. There is a level of comfort there enjoyed by few golfers on any other course. Check out this tournament history for McIlroy:
2012: T2 (playoff loss)
Looking within the numbers, the results for the only two-time winner of this tournament are even more impressive. In that 2010 Wells Fargo Championship debut, Rory made the cut on the number, and then put together an all-time great weekend, posting 66-62 and winning the tournament by four strokes.
In addition, that win was the first of his PGA Tour career. His 2015 win was by a commanding seven strokes and included a third round 61. This has been Rory’s place.
Unfortunately for McIlroy, he was unable to add more to his stellar Quail Hollow resume in 2017, as a nagging rib injury prevented him from competing. He was at the PGA Championship last August, but was still battling injury. Even still, he finished T13, highlighted by a final-round 68.
A two-time PGA Championship winner, it had to be very deflating for the event to be at Quail Hollow in a year when he could not give his best physically.
Since declaring that he was completely healed from the rib injury that cost him so much of 2017, Rory has been the epitome of boom or bust. The now World No. 7 had a four-event stretch in Europe where he had two runner-ups and a T3. Then he started competing in the states again, and looked awful in four starts, with results of CUT, T20, T59, CUT.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, Rory was absolutely dominant during a Sunday 64 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that netted him his first PGA Tour victory since the 2016 Tour Championship. His next (and most recent) start was at The Masters.
With a win, he would have completed the career grand slam, and he was off to a good start, reaching 11-under through three rounds and playing himself into the final group on Sunday. His final round, however, was completely uninspiring, and a 2-over 74 dropped him to T5 for the week. He has played very well, but has not played very well consistently.
6. PHIL’S IN THE FIELD
Like Tiger and Rory, Phil Mickelson is also making the Wells Fargo Championship his first start since The Masters. The 47-year-old looked reborn in February and March, posting finishes of T5, T2, WIN, T6, T17 respectively in five starts.
That win, which snapped a frustratingly overreported five year drought, was in an elite event, the WGC-Mexico Championship where he bested reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas in a playoff. It cannot be debated: he has been very good.
With his spirits high coming to Augusta, the three-time Masters Champion seemed destined to contend in the first major of the year, but Phil collapsed on Friday, following a solid round-one 2-under 70 with a 7-over 79.
Even at 5-over, though, Mickelson made the cut. He started his third round about as poorly as one can, carding a triple-bogey on 1 and a bogey on 2, but he rebounded to finish Saturday with a 74, and he was excellent on Sunday, shooting a 5-under 67 to finish 2-over for the week. A T36 does not look special in a vacuum, but there were some positives to draw from it.
Phil has never won the Wells Fargo Championship, but he has played the event exceptionally. Since 2004, Phil has played every edition of this event, posting nine top-10s in 14 starts.
Looking at his tournament history and recent play, there is good reason to expect Mickelson to contend again this week.
7. WATCH OUT FOR JOAQUIN
Two weeks ago, 19-year-old Chilean star Joaquin Niemann turned pro after spending 48 consecutive weeks atop the amateur rankings. He made the Valero Texas Open his first start, and the teenager did not disappoint. With rounds of 72-70-67-67, Niemann dazzled the field on the way to a solo-sixth place finish, further raising the high bar he had already set.
Niemann will be making pro start No. 2 this week at Quail Hollow, which he qualified for via that high finish at TPC San Antonio.
This is a much tougher field than he was competing against at the Valero, but his confidence is sky high and his talent appears limitless. Niemann is going to be a really good pro, really soon.