Not all the headlines entering the Wells Fargo Championship were positive. Bumpy putting surfaces at this usually pristine place led many high-profile players to withdraw. Some of the world’s premiere players, as well as a few new faces, are on the leaderboard after the first round at Quail Hollow, though.
Here are 5 Things to Know about the opening round in Charlotte:
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1. RORY RUNS TO FRONT: Rory McIlroy hasn’t played a competitive round since the Masters, and only started practicing the Friday before this week, but opened with a 7-under 65 to share the first-round lead with Ryan Moore, Nick Watney, Robert Garrigus, Derek Ernst, Daniel Summerhays and Monday qualifier Nate Smith.
McIlroy, who struggled at the start of this season, finished second at the Valero Texas Open and 25th at the Masters.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with my swing and a lot more comfortable with where my game is at,” said McIlroy, who won here in 2010 and lost a playoff last year. He worked with swing coach Michael Bannon in Florida late last week. A more stable hip turn was the focus of their work.
“My game wasn’t where it should have been at all at the start of the year,” McIlroy said. “Got into a couple bad habits on my swing and it just took me a little bit of time to get out of them. But now that I feel like I’m swinging it well, this is the sort of golf I expect to play.”
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2. LEFTY’S LURKING: Like McIlroy, Mickelson hasn’t played since the Masters. He made the type of par for which he’s famous as he closed his first-round 68. He drove well right into the trees and had to lay up about 75 yards short of the green. He holed a 15-foot putt to save par.
“I got a little bit tired,” he said. “I quit on a couple of those swings and pull-hooked two drives on 8 and 9 and put myself in binds. . . . But I hit the ball pretty well today and made a lot of putts. It was playing difficult this morning when it was colder and there was a little drizzle.”
He has six top-10s in nine previous starts at Quail Hollow. He hit just six of 14 fairways Thursday while using a modified version of the Phrankenwood he debuted at the Masters, where he finished 54th.
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3. CHANGE FOR THE BETTER: It’s been a tough start to his rookie season for Derek Ernst, but some recent changes helped him to a share of the lead at the Wells Fargo Championship. Ernst, who’s made just $28,255 in his first seven starts, has a new swing coach and caddie. Thursday’s 67 was his fourth consecutive sub-par round; he’s coming off his best finish of the year, a T-47 at last week’s Zurich Classic. He got into the Wells Fargo Championship as the fourth alternate.
“I make the cut at the first (event) at Sony Open, and then I started thinking about everything,” said Ernst, who turned pro after the 2012 U.S. Amateur and advanced through four stages of Q-school. “Like, wow. There is Tiger and there’s all these guys, and I think I just tried to be someone that I wasn’t. Now I’ve kind of realized that and I’m going back to all the things that got me there in the first place.”
Ernst began working with Susie Meyers, the longtime swing coach of PGA Tour player Michael Thompson, two weeks ago. He also reunited with Aaron Terry, who caddied for Ernst during his amateur days. Ernst hired a professional caddie to start the year, but reunited with Terry last week.
Another interesting note: While attempting to make his mom a gift when he was in the second grade, he sliced his right eye with a shard of PVC pipe. As the eye healed, scar tissue developed. The scar tissue is still there, giving him cloudy vision and poor depth perception out of the right eye.
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4. SIGN OF THE TIMES: Nate Smith is off to a good start in what might be his only PGA Tour start of the year. Smith, who’s playing the Web.com Tour on past champion’s status, Monday qualified for this week’s event in the state where he attended college (Duke). Smith played Thursday with a bag covered in players’ signatures after a prank by his friend, Tour player James Hahn. Hahn asked players to sign the bag, which he claimed would be auctioned off for charity. There were about 60 signatures on the bag.
Smith has made the cut in three of five starts on the Web.com Tour this year, but hasn’t finished better than 29th.
This is Smith’s first PGA Tour start since his rookie season in 2011. He missed the cut in 16 of 24 starts and finished No. 197 in the FedEx Cup rankings. His best finish on Tour was a T-30 at the 2011 Frys.com Open. He finished No. 122 on the Web.com Tour money list and is No. 1,306 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Jordan Spieth, playing on a sponsor exemption, shot 69 and is tied for 14th, two shots off the lead. . . . Rod Pampling, who was the tournament’s 10th alternate, also shot 69. He hasn’t finished better than 42nd in six PGA Tour starts this year. . . . Lucas Glover, the 2011 Wells Fargo champion, shot 68 and is one back of the lead; Glover is coming off a T-4 at last week’s Zurich Classic. … Rickie Fowler is hoping to avoid joining David Toms (2004), Jim Furyk (2007), Sean O’Hair (2010), Rory McIlroy (2011) and Lucas Glover (2012) as defending champions who missed the cut the year after winning the event. Fowler is T-54 after shooting even-par 72 in the first round.