While the PGA Tour boasts enthralling events year-round, it is difficult to deny that there is a significant lull immediately following The Masters. That lull felt especially pronounced this year, as Tiger Woods winning the green jacket produced a high unlike anything professional sports has seen in some time.
Still, as far as lulls go, things were pretty good. C.T. Pan’s maiden PGA Tour victory at the RBC Heritage, the event immediately following The Masters, was entertaining, as was the victory by the team of Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer at last week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a tournament that went to a team format three years ago.
Those events had their moments, but the Tour’s big guns finally congregate once again this week, as the 17th edition of the Wells Fargo Championship, held at Quail Hollow Club, perhaps the toughest course of the entire season.
Among the elites in the field this week include defending champion Jason Day, and two-time (the only two-time) champion Rory McIlroy, in addition to Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Tony Finau, and Sergio Garcia, among others.
The PGA Championship is quickly approaching, and many great players have made the astute decision of attempting to round into form at one of the Tour’s most challenging venues.
Tournament: Wells Fargo Championship
Dates: May 2-5, 2019
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: $1,422,000
OWGR/PGAT Points: 50/500
Defending Champion: Jason Day
1. Day Defends
Coming off an extremely disappointing 2017 season, Jason Day notched his second victory of the 2018 season last year at Quail Hollow. A pedestrian final round through 15 holes had Day, the tournament’s 54-hole leader, on the ropes, but with clutch birdies on 16 and 17, the then 30-year-old Aussie won the Wells Fargo Championship by two strokes over a rejuvenated Nick Watney and super-rookie Aaron Wise.
The former World No. 1 is now World No. 14, but while he is not the week-in, week-out dynamo he used to be, he has contended a number of times in 2018, posting five top-10s in 11 starts, with the most recent one being a T5 at The Masters. Day is killing it with his driver and putter this year, but his ball-striking has not always been there.
2. Rory’s Playhouse
One of the worst kept secrets on the PGA Tour is that Rory McIlroy basically owns Quail Hollow Club. The affair began at the 2010 Wells Fargo Championship when Rory made the cut on the number, but then put together a ridiculous 66-62 weekend to somehow win by four strokes (to those unfamiliar with that event: seriously, none of that was a typo). That 2010 final round was not even Rory’s best here: he shot a course-record 61 in the 2015 edition, which he also won.
The only two-time champion of this event, Rory is the favorite again coming into the week, and while his most recent start (The Masters) was a surprising disappointment (T21), he still has a victory and a runner-up among his seven top-10s in just nine starts this season, which has him at a loft third in the current FedExCup Standings.
In the midst of one of his most complete seasons yet, McIlroy leads the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and strokes gained: total.
3. Phil Looking For a Breakthrough
There is not a lot that Phil Mickelson has not been able to accomplish in his long, Hall of Fame golf career, but he really, really wants a victory at Quail Hollow.
Mickelson has played this event 16 times, and has consistently finished high, but has not quite been able to win. He finished runner-up the year (2010) that Rory went crazy on the weekend, and also has finishes of T5 (last year), T4 (2015 and 2016), T11 (2014, despite rounds of 75 and 76), 3rd (2013), T9 (2011), T5 (2009), T3 (2007), T7 (2005), and T5 (2004).
Phil won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, but has struggled badly since, as a T18 at The Masters is his only finish of better than 37th in six starts.
The challenge of Quail Hollow traditionally lures a strong field, and this year’s edition is no different, as eight members of the OWGR’s top 20 are in attendance this week.
That segment is heavily represented in this week’s power rankings, but are far from the only players worth of attention:
10. Tony Finau (15), 22-1
9. Sergio Garcia (29), 20-1
8. Phil Mickelson (23), 25-1
7. Paul Casey (13), 25-1
6. Lucas Glover (84), 40-1
5. Webb Simpson (20), 20-1
4. Justin Rose (2), 11-1
3. Jason Day (14), 10-1
2. Rickie Fowler (10), 11-1
1. Rory McIlroy (4), 6-1
Top Sleeper: Seamus Power
An unbelievably poor start to the 2019 season had the Irishman looking like a long-shot to keep his PGA Tour card after this season, but everything has changed over the past two weeks.
After a 10 start stretch where he missed seven cuts, with finishes of T64, T35, T44 in his other three starts, the 32-year-old broke through with a T6 effort at the RBC Heritage, where his short game bordered on immaculate, and then last week he posted a T5 while paired with a badly struggling David Hearn.
In their round 1 4-under 68, Power carded every birdie the duo had. In addition, he played well at Quail Hollow last year, finishing 1-under for the week, good for a share of 27th place.
Quail Hollow Club has been very well known for some time, having been established 60 years ago, but the Wells Fargo Championship is one of the younger events on Tour. Only 16 previous editions of the tournament have occurred, with 15 of them taking place at Quail Hollow. Only the 2017 event took place elsewhere, as the course was being prepped for the PGA Championship that year.
The inaugural 2003 event was won by David Toms, who finished at 10-under to win by two strokes over Robert Gamez. Quail Hollow Club was the site of the first career victories for Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy, while being the site of the final career victory of Joey Sindelar, who enjoyed a career that spanned more than 25 years.
A notoriously brutal course, Quail Hollow boasts one of the toughest stretches on Tour, the “Green Mile”, which comprises the final three holes, setting up a significant amount of drama in the Tour’s history.
It should please fans of the tournament to know that, in recent years, the Wells Fargo Championship has consistently been very, very close. Since Wells Fargo took over sponsorship in 2011, six of the eight tournaments have been decided by either one stroke or by a playoff. The two exceptions were Jason Day’s two-stroke victory last year, which was still in question very late, and McIlroy’s 7-stroke romp in 2015, which was much less so.
Stat of the Week
Two (2) Top 10s – At last year’s Wells Fargo Championship, Aaron Wise and Nick Watney, both in much different places in their careers, were the biggest chasers to tournament winner Jason Day. Had Wise won, it would have been the first of his career (that ended up coming the very next week). For Watney, who had seen his once promising career implode in front of his eyes, it would have been his first victory in six years
Both Wise and Watney came to play that week, and Wise continued to play well enough to secure PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, but neither have been at their best in the 2019 season. In fact, the duo has combined for just “2” top 10s: Wise finished T10 at last November’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, while Watney was T9 while teamed with Charley Hoffman at last week’s Zurich Classic.
Hole of the Week
No.1, Quail Hollow Club
Par 4, 495 yards
2018 average: 4.296 (3rd toughest)
Already boasting what’s perennially the PGA Tour’s toughest closing stretch in the “Green Mile,” Quail Hollow also now features an opening brute that might give Augusta National’s first hole a run for its money.
Created from the merger of two holes in Quail Hollow’s original footprint, the new No.1 was unveiled at last year’s PGA Championship and soon made itself known. After just 15 birdies were recorded in the first two rounds, not one of the 75 players to make the weekend birdied No.1 in Round 3.
All in all, No.1 came in as last year’s eighth-toughest hole on the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy, whose 61 in the 2015 Wells Fargo stood as the old course record, summed it up by suggesting whereas the old 418-yard opener greeted golfers with a gentle handshake, the new version is like a punch in the face.
No.1 will play 29 yards shorter this week than at last year’s PGA (524 yards), so that should ease a bit of the sting. Still, only the longest hitters will be able to cut much corner on a dogleg that doesn’t bend until 250 yards, and a long approach awaits to a small, well-guarded green.
– Jeff Shain
“James [Palmer’s caddy] and I talked about it way back in January. I really wanted to come here. I wouldn’t miss coming here each and every year, and we kind of talked about partners, and Jon [Rahm] was one of the top ones if not the top choice for both of us. We know Adam [Rahm’s caddy] since day one we’ve been on Tour; good friends with Adam for a long time. It was an easy decision. I shot him a text hoping he would bite. When a 42-year-old player is calling him, he’s probably like, ‘why does he want to play with me?
“But he accepted, and what an awesome week! Our games compliment each other so much, the way we drive the ball, our iron play, and there’s nothing better than missing greens knowing his short game is behind me. What a week”
– Ryan Palmer, who teamed up with Jon Rahm to win last week’s Zurich Classic, on how their team came to be
More: Wells Fargo Championship Primer – History, TV, Field, Odds