If there were such a thing in golf as a “mini-major,” the way this week’s Wells Fargo Championship is setting up just might qualify.
Several factors specific to this year, when considered together, elevate the 16th staging of this championship to a higher level. Not the least of them is the Quail Hollow course itself, which permanently validated itself a top-rung American test of golf when it hosted one of the more memorable PGA Championships of recent years last August, with its famous “Green Mile” of finishing holes living up to its fearsome reputation.
From that field, 64 players are back as part of the 156-man field that will tee it up this week. Leading the way is the breakout star of that PGA Championship, Justin Thomas, who not only won his first major title but set the stage for earning 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year honors on his march to status as the world’s No. 2-ranked player.
Thomas, like every player in the field, is hoping to flash top form to show they are ready for a pivotal seven-week stretch of the 2018 schedule, highlighted by this week’s stop, next week’s Players Championship, the Memorial Tournament on Memorial weekend and finally the U.S. Open in mid-June.
Lurking right behind Thomas are two popular, powerhouse players who each recorded their first wins on the PGA Tour at this event. World No. 6 Rickie Fowler was the 2012 champion, while world No. 7 Rory McIlroy not only won the 2010 title, but became the only multiple winner in event history when he added a second victory in Charlotte in 2015.
Then you have the intrigue of Masters champion Patrick Reed, now up to No. 11 in the world and facing the strongest field since his dream victory at Augusta in April. Reed is never shy, and should have even additional confidence from his tie for second at Quail Hollow in the PGA.
And if you would happen to stroll past the broadcast facilities at Quail Hollow this weekend and wonder why the CBS executives all have such giddy smiles on their faces, that would be because the Great Ratings Reliables are both on the grounds, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Tiger, the 2007 winner of this event, will be making his first start since The Masters and will be looking to show his remarkable comeback is still gaining momentum heading into the heart of the season, while Phil has a track record at Quail Hollow that would make him an intriguing story at any event — he’s never won in Charlotte in 14 starts, but he’s also never missed a cut and has finished in the top 10 nine times, three more times than any other player in the field.
Those two alone guarantee gaudy TV ratings, particularly if one or both are in contention on the weekend. Add to all of those factors a strong overall field, and this 2017 “mini-major” could just end up as must-see TV for all true golf fans.
Tournament: Wells Fargo Championship
Dates: May 3-6, 2018
Where: Charlotte, N.C.
Course: Quail Hollow Club
Distance: Par 71, 7,554 yards
Architect: George Cobb, Tom Fazio
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,386,000
Defending Champion: Brian Harman
Marquee Players: Harman, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Louis Oosthuizen, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Alex Noren, Joaquin Niemann
TV AND ONLINE
Round 1: Thu 4-7:00 pm (GOLF)
Round 2: Fri 4-7:00 pm (GOLF)
Round 3: Sat 1-2:30 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
Round 4: Sun 1-2:30 pm (GOLF), 3-6:00 pm (CBS)
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The Wells Fargo Championship is a relatively young tournament, with the inaugural tournament (then called the Wachovia Championship) teeing off in 2003. The first event winner was David Toms, who at -10, won by two shots. Each of the next three editions was decided in a playoff.
Notable champions include Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Anthony Kim and Rickie Fowler. McIlroy is the only two-time winner, taking the 2010 and 2015 events. In that 2010 victory, McIlroy made the cut on the number and then exploded on the weekend, shooting 66-62 to win by four strokes over Phil Mickelson.
Quail Hollow Club is a famously difficult course, highlighted by a brutal finishing stretch (16-18) referred to as the “Green Mile.” Full recognition of just how great a tournament course Quail Hollow is was elevated last August, when the course hosted one of the better PGA Championships in recent years.
With Quail Hollow already on the schedule for the PGA, last year’s Wells Fargo Championship was staged at Eagle Point Golf Club, a strong 2000 Tom Fazio design that is consistently ranked among the top 100 in the country, where Brian Harman emerged victorious.
2011-18: Wells Fargo Championship
2009-10: Quail Hollow Championship
2003-08: Wachovia Championship
2017: Brian Harman (-10)
2016: James Hahn (-9)
2015: Rory McIlroy (-21)
2014: J.B. Holmes (-14)
2013: Derek Ernst (-8)
2012: Rickie Fowler (-14)
2011: Lucas Glover (-15)
TOURNAMENT SCORING RECORDS
Scoring: 267 (-21) Rory McIlroy (2015)
Wins: 2 – Rory McIlroy (2010, 2015)
The last tour player to hoist a trophy at Quail Hollow was Justin Thomas, but that was for his breakthrough win at the 2017 PGA Championship last August.
More than three months earlier, the Wells Fargo trophy detoured for a year over to Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, N.C., and still produced a fair share of drama, with tour veteran Brian Harman finishing with consecutive birdies to end world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s personal three-event winning streak.
With a second consecutive round of five-under 67, DJ finished the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship at 9-under, good for a disappointing-only-by-the-ridiculous-standard-he-has-set tie for second place.
One of the biggest players on Tour, at least vertically, Johnson is constantly lauded for his otherworldly athleticism. That makes it kind of funny that his three-start winning streak was snapped by the diminutive Brian Harman, who measures in at 5-7 and would certainly get zero votes in a player survey of the top 100 Tour players they would least want to encounter in a dark alley.
With four birdies over his last seven holes, including an exclamation point finish: a 28-foot birdie putt after having hit two atrocious shots back-to-back, the 30-year-old Georgian (the American kind) captured his second career PGA victory.
FINAL TOP 5
1 Brian Harman -10
2 Dustin Johnson -9
2 Pat Perez -9
4 Jon Rahm -8
5 Smylie Kaufman -7
5 Kevin Tway -7
5 Seung-Yol Noh -7
Sorting out all the possibilities of what could happen at the 2018 Wells Fargo Championship is enough of a challenge to leave IBM’s star super-computer, Watson, asking if we wouldn’t rather play a nice game of chess.
PGA Tour golf is in a place right now where, damn their tag line, it really is true that “Anything’s Possible.”
World No. 2 Justin Thomas is good enough to run away and hide, if he’s on. But despite leading the FedEx Cup race right now, you can’t really say that he is, by his elevated standards. His last two starts are a Masters showing where he broke 70 only once in four rounds, and then a missed cut with partner Bud Cauley at last week’s two-man event at the Zurich Classic.
On the other hand, the three tournaments before that he posted a first, second and fourth. He also has the added incentive of knowing that with a solo finish at 12th or anything better this week, he will jump past Dustin Johnson — who is not in the Wells Fargo field — into the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Despite Thomas and his PGA title here last August, plenty of pontificators don’t even feel he is the favorite for this week. That distinction, they would say, belongs to Rory McIlroy, he of the two previous victories at Quail Hollow, the all-time tournament scoring record and that stunning Sunday round of 62 in 2010 that remains one of his most memorable career highlights.
No player has earned more money in their career at this event than Rory, and his game is looking solid, with his victory in March at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and his tie for fifth at The Masters.
What percentages do you then assign to Rickie Fowler, Jason Day or Patrick Reed? Fowler is a former winner of this event, ranked No. 6 in the world and finished tied for fifth at last August’s PGA. Day is a major champion, ranked No. 14 in the world, already has a victory this year at the Farmer’s Insurance Open and placed tied for ninth at Quail Hollow’s PGA.
Reed is merely the newest Masters champion, on a streak of five straight top-10 finishes, ranked No. 11 in the world and finished tied for second nine months ago in the PGA. If you have a theory that can sort those three apart, we’d be glad to hear it.
We’ve already gone into the Tiger and Phil scenarios at some length at the top of this primer. Don’t worry about how they are faring — we’re pretty sure that if either is within three shots of the lead come Saturday afternoon, your phone will let you know by the heat radiating from it due to the amount of text messaging traffic that will be threatening the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.
So we’ve gotten this far without even mentioning past major champions like Webb Simpson, the North Carolina native who is a Quail Hollow member, placed tied for second in this event in 2015 and is on a current streak of three top 10s in his last six starts. Or Louis Oosthuizen, he of three second-place ties in major championships in the last three seasons, including one in the Quail Hollow PGA last year.
Or reigning U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka, who doesn’t have a lot of experience here, having traditionally taken time off during this week, but will play this week in trying to bounce back from a wrist injury, and who showed he could be comfortable at Quail Hollow with a tie for 13th showing at the PGA.
You get the picture. A lot could happen. It could be a lot of fun. And don’t touch that dial until the guy you think is going to win it actually holes out to end his experience with the Green Mile.
Credits: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images