While the brief respite provided by the team-play format of last weekend’s Zurich Classic was undeniably entertaining, and provided the best Monday of sports since the NFL season concluded, there are a plethora of questions to still be answered in the world of professional golf. The next set of those answers will come at this week’s stroke-play event, the Wells Fargo Championship.
Most years we would be scouring the records of Quail Hollow Club, the site of the Wells Fargo since its inception, to try to uncover who has the best chance to win. This year, however, is different. Quail Hollow is preparing for its next great chapter: a major championship venue, which will happen when it plays host to the PGA Championship in August.
While the course is busy getting major-ready, this year’s Wells Fargo Championship is set to be held at Eagle Point Golf Club, a worthy substitute to one of the best settings on Tour.
As a new PGA Tour location with no history on golf’s professional stage, Eagle Point provides something we do not often see: equal footing for an entire field.
So, who has the advantage this week? Some would say Dustin Johnson, who in 2017 has been nothing short of dominant, but the man they call DJ is coming fresh off a three week absence after a freak off-course accident forced him to withdraw from The Masters when he was playing the best golf of his life.
There are other big names in the field as well, including Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, and Jon Rahm, but none of them have a history at Eagle Point. The winner could literally come from anywhere in the 156-man field.
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 Golf Club is a famously difficult course, highlighted by a brutal finishing stretch (16-18) referred to as the “Green Mile”. While Quail Hollow has been the host of each previous Wells Fargo Championship, it will not be held there this year, as the course is in currently preparing for the 2017 PGA Championship in August.
Taking over is Eagle Point Golf Club, a 2000 Tom Fazio design. The course is consistently ranked among the top 100 in the country.
Name: Eagle Point Golf Club
Where: Wilmington, North Carolina
Distance: 7473 yards
Architect: Tom Fazio
Winning Share: $1,350,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of the Wells Fargo Championship is James Hahn. Coming off eight consecutive missed cuts, Hahn looked reborn at Quail Hollow.
Two strokes off the lead going into the final round, Hahn got off to a hot start, playing his front nine in three-under to propel himself to the front of the field. Hahn then held off Justin Rose and former Wells Fargo Champion Rickie Fowler on the back nine, finishing at two-under 70. At -9 for the tournament, he forced a playoff with Roberto Castro.
Hahn’s par on the first playoff hole, combined with a Castro bogey, gave Hahn his second career victory.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Rory McIlroy
2014: J.B. Holmes
2013: Derek Ernst
2012: Rickie Fowler
2011: Lucas Glover
Lowest Final Score: The lowest final score at the Wells Fargo Championship was the 267 (-21) shot by Rory McIlroy in his seven-stroke 2015 victory. McIlroy broke the tournament scoring record by six strokes.
Low Round: 61 (Rory McIlroy)
Round 1: 2-6:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 2-6:00 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 1-2:30 PM – Golf Channel; 3-6:00 PM – CBS
Round 4: 1-2:30 PM – Golf Channel; 3-6:00 PM – CBS
Storyline 1: Hahn Defends
James Hahn showed incredible resiliency at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. His game was in shambles going in, having missed his previous 8 cuts, but he rededicated himself after an encouraging meeting with his caddie, and not only did he turn his game back around, he won the whole thing. It was an inspiring tale of what the human mind is capable of.
Since that victory, the 35-year-old American has played plenty, but has not seen many leaderboards. Hahn had mixed results in the 11 PGA tournaments post-Wells Fargo. On the positive side, he missed just two cuts in that stretch. He was also tremendous at an elite-field event, the Deutsche Bank Championship, shooting three rounds in the 60s and finishing T5.
On the flip side of that, the T5 was his only top-20 in that stretch, as a T24 at the BMW was his only other finish inside the top 40. While he was making more cuts and getting award more paychecks, he had a span of seven consecutive tournaments finishing over par.
The 2017 season has been more of the same for Hahn; he is making cuts (10 in 14 events), but not contending. A solo-ninth place finish at the CIMB Classic in late October is his only top 10.
Since the calendar flipped over to 2017, his best finish is a T22 at the SBS Tournament of Champions, which only hosted a 32-man field. He has not finished in the top 40 since a T28 at the Genesis Open in mid-February.
A return to Quail Hollow might have been great for his confidence, but with this year’s edition being played at Eagle Point, his 2016 victory is less of an advantage that it would otherwise be.
Hahn has been fairly average off the tees and on the greens, and is hitting greens at a positive rate, ranking 41st on Tour in greens in regulation. His big weakness in 2017, however, has been around the greens. He has especially struggled scrambling from the rough, getting up and down just 47% of the time, which ranks a dismal 198th on Tour. He has been mostly accurate, but has a proclivity for compounding his errors further.
Hahn is definitely entering the Wells Fargo with a higher profile than last year. Going into that tournament, Hahn had fallen to 134th in the world. Currently, he is 81st.
While it is a different course, he should still be able to conjure up some good vibes by drawing off his past experience, remembering that he has emphatically pulled himself out of slumps in the past.
Storyline 2: DJ Returns
The biggest story of the PGA Tour season has been the remarkable transformation of Dustin Johnson from PGA star to professional sports superstar.
Considered among the best on Tour at the end of 2017, Johnson is now unquestionably the single greatest player in the game (currently). The dazzling, seemingly unstoppable ability he has shown lately made it all the more unfortunate that he was forced to withdraw from The Masters after a freak off-course back injury.
According to Johnson, he slipped off a staircase at his rental property while descending it in socks. He gets the benefit of the doubt for now, but one thing that sports has taught us: if somebody gets hurt in a bizarre set of circumstances, you should be skeptical. The best examples of this are Jeff Kent’s “truck washing” injury, and the time Thomas Jones broke his hand answering the phone.
Regardless, the injury sidelined him at the worst possible time. He had won his previous three starts (with numbers 2 and 3 coming in WGC events), elevated to #1 in the world, and then further strengthened his hold on that position.
Since the season started, an anomalous missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in January is his only finish outside the top six. Needless to say, he was the favorite going into The Masters. The Wells Fargo Championship marks Johnson’s first start since the withdraw heard around the world.
Not only is this DJ’s first start since The Masters, it is also his first attempt at the Wells Fargo since 2011. There may be some rust to shake off, but at a course that nobody in the field has played in an official, competitive PGA Tour event, the unreal state of his game is the biggest advantage anyone has.
Storyline 3: Phil in the Field
Like he is nearly every time he tees up, Phil Mickelson is probably the most popular player in the Wells Fargo field this week. Last year, Phil nearly ended his 3-plus year winless streak at Quail Hollow, posting a final round 66 that left him in a tie for fourth, two strokes behind Hahn.
If not for a quadruple-bogey 8 on the par-4 18th hole in round 3, we might be talking about his defense at this event. Phil was also T4 the year prior, and in 2012. He has consistently finished very high in this event, but is still looking for his first win. His best finish was a solo runner-up in 2010, the year Rory McIlroy lapped the weekend field.
While Phil is no doubt frustrated with his much-publicized winless streak, which stretches back to his stunning triumph at the 2013 Open Championship, he is again, in the midst of a quality season.
The 46-year-old has yet to miss the cut this season, and has tallied three top-10s in 10 events. He played very well at the two March WGC events, the WGC-Mexico Championship (T7) and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (T5). At the match play, he was flat-out dominant until Bill Haas tripped him up in the round of 8.
To the surprise of nobody, Phil’s biggest strength this season has been his world-class short game. He ranks third on Tour in putting average, first in putts per round, and second in strokes gained: around-the-green. While his all-around accuracy has been failing him in 2017- he is 175th in driving accuracy and 188th in greens in regulation- his short game has been dependable as always. If that short game is on, he is a huge threat to add career win #43 in Wilmington.
Storyline 4: Rested Rahm
If there is one thing for the 156-man Wells Fargo field to be scared of this week, it’s a rested Jon Rahm. And having sat out the past three weeks, that is exactly what the field is going to get.
The 22-year-old Spanish sensation has been phenomenal in 2017. He won the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament that embarrassed many of the world’s best (Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Tiger Woods, Jimmy Walker, and Brooks Koepka all missed the cut).
Rahm also finished in runner-up position to DJ at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, T3 at the WGC-Mexico, and T5 at Pebble Beach. A triple-bogey on the 72nd hole at Augusta is the only thing stopping him from having finished each of the 11 tournaments he has played this season under par. He has ascended to #13 in the world, and his inevitable top-10 ranking is just a matter of time.
The way he has played lately, it could very well come in next week’s edition of the world rankings.
This will be Rahm’s Wells Fargo debut, but most of his starts are his first at that event, and it has not slowed him down any. By tournament’s end, expect him to add another large chunk of change to the $3.5 million he has already earned this year.
Other Notables in the Field
Now the world’s 737th ranked player, the game of the five-time Tour winner has plummeted to some unfathomable depths over the past two years. Perhaps most telling of his struggles, the 39-year-old from Sweden has failed to play the weekend in 29 of his last 38 starts.
All that being said, Pettersson has some hope for this week. He is the only player in the field to be a member of Eagle Point, so he is very conversant with the course. Two weeks ago, he put together a very respectable T16 at the Valero Texas Open, highlighted by a second-round 66 that had him in contention going into the weekend.
The 33-year-old South Carolinian Kisner was absolutely unreal during Sunday’s final round at last week’s Zurich Classic, carding birdies on six consecutive front-nine holes, and then sinking a clutch pitch from 35 yards out for eagle on the 72nd hole to force a playoff.
Kisner has two runner-up finishes on the season, and looks very close to nabbing his second career victory. His best finish in this event was a T6 in 2014.
The game of the 23-year-old Aussie was trending up before his breakthrough victory at the Zurich Classic. He will be playing solo this week, but coming off back-to-back top-six finishes, he should be among the most feared in the field.
If the Monday finish did not take too much out of him, it would not be the least bit surprising if he posts his third consecutive quality start. He is currently #1 on Tour in shots gained: around-the-green.
Ranked #12 in the world, most of Noren’s damage has been done in Europe, where he won four times in 2016. He made himself known in the states by dominating group play at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and finished T5 as a ferocious comeback attempt against Dustin Johnson in the round of 8 fell just short.
This will be Noren’s first attempt at the Wells Fargo Championship.
At #11 in the world, Adam Scott is the second-highest ranked player in the field. He is coming off a strong start at The Masters, where two rounds in the 60s led to a T9 finish.
At a course that hardly anyone in the field is especially familiar with, Scott’s all-around game makes places him among the biggest threats for victory.