CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Wells Fargo Championship has developed into a quasi-major in its 10-year existence, attracting a strong field to compete on a major-championship venue. PGA Tour events with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson always have some extra pizzazz, attracting more media attention and drawing higher television ratings. Having Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy here at Quail Hollow Club also helps. Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy are making their first starts since the Masters four weeks ago.
They’re all coming off Masters performances they’d like to forget. Woods’ tie for 40th was his worst Augusta finish as a professional. McIlroy was one shot off the lead after 36 holes, but shot 77-76 over the weekend to tie Woods. Mickelson used a back-nine 30 during an exciting second nine Saturday to get into the final pairing, but his title chances were undone by a triple bogey on the par-3 fourth.
Westwood is here after a victory at another Masters, this one in Indonesia. He endured yet another close call at a major, finishing third at Augusta National.
There are hints of Augusta this week, beyond both courses’ Southern charm. Quail Hollow, which will host the 2017 PGA Championship, is lush and perfectly manicured. Trees are encircled by pine straw. Even the Mercedes-Benz courtesy cars are identical models.
“It’s a good golf course,” Westwood said. “You have to be on your game. If you are, you can score well, and if you’re not, you get penalized.”
McIlroy preceded his 2011 U.S. Open victory with a win here in 2010, a victory capped by a final-round 62. Lucas Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, won here last year. Six of the nine winners here have won a major championship.
Mickelson is not among that group. He called his Masters “great” in spite of his inability to win a fourth green jacket. “On the weekend, I felt I played about as well as I ever have,” he said. Of course, that was undone by his disaster at No. 4, his only over-par hole in the final two rounds. “Unfortunately (the tee shot) hit the metal rail and went 30 yards left into trees, and it happens,” he said. “But I take a lot of positives away from the Masters because of the way I played thereafter, before and on Saturday.”
Westwood is playing this week without his regular caddie, Billy Foster, who suffered a knee injury while playing soccer Monday. Westwood said Foster plans to return before the U.S. Open.
McIlroy is playing five of the next seven weeks in preparation for his U.S. Open defense: here, the Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship, Memorial and U.S. Open. He preceded this stretch with just one start – at the Masters – in the past seven weeks. He left his clubs in the United States during a two-week trip to Europe. He spent the past week in Florida with his swing coach, Michael Bannon. Their focus was making McIlroy more comfortable with moving his tee shots both ways. “I struggled to hit the ball right-to-left at Augusta,” McIlroy said.
Accurate driving will be important here, as well. That’s always the case at a world-class event.