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Big names flock to Quail Hollow: The Wells Fargo Championship Preview

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By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer 

You knew it was coming.  Every sport has them.  The events you circle on your calendar.  And this tournament always brings out the best.

The 2012 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow once again boasts one of the strongest fields of the PGA Tour season with an exceptionally impressive pedigree of major champions, past winners, and the game’s biggest names.

Tiger Woods is back (with his “fixed swing”) after taking three weeks off since his disappointing Masters finish.  Woods won here in 2007 and finished fourth in 2009.  But was forced out of play in 2011 because of leg injuries.

Rory McIlroy (T-40 at The Masters with Woods) will be teeing it up this week as well.  The young Northern Irishman returns to Quail Hollow where he notched his breakthrough first PGA Tour victory in 2010 with a dazzling arsenal of shots (and set a new course record of 10-under 62 on Sunday to defeat Masters champion Phil Mickelson by four strokes).

Defending champion (and 2009 U.S. Open winner) Lucas Glover will look to become the first multiple winner of this event (he defeated runner-up Jonathan Byrd in a playoff last year).

And the always flamboyant risk taker (and 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am champion) Mickelson will try to pick up his first career Wells Fargo victory (Lefty finished fifth here in 2009, second in 2010, and ninth in 2011).

This 20th event of the PGA Tour season and 10th playing of the Wells Fargo Championship features six of the top-10 players in the FedExCup standings and five of the top-10 players in the Official World Golf Rankings (including World No. 3 Lee Westwood and World No. 5 Hunter Mahan).

11 winners on Tour in 2012, 18 major champions, and eight of the nine previous Wells Fargo winners (with five of the last seven holding major championship titles) are also in the Quail Hollow field this week.

Tiger’s Fixed Swing

During a question and answer video session with fans on his website this week Tiger said he’s ready for Quail Hollow and has “solved” his ball striking problems.

“At the Masters I was kind of struggling with my ball-striking a little bit,” Woods said.  “Sean [Foley] and I fixed it.”

Make no mistake a poor performance at Quail Hollow would be a damning indictment of Tiger’s present course of action.

Vision without execution is hallucination.

Lefty’s Verbal Grenades

In eight career starts here Mickelson has finished in the top-10 a record six times.  And in 2010 he impressed with his career best (a solo second place finish). 

But his 2010 success didn’t stop Phil from “ripping the Quail Hollow course design” at the tournament’s conclusion.

“As beautifully designed as this golf course is tee to green, the greens are the worst designed greens we play on tour,” Mickelson said.  “I would say No. 18 is the worst green we have on tour, except that it’s not even the worst on this golf course.  No. 12 is.”

Here’s hoping Phil worries less about course design and more on “ripping his driver” a little better this week (Lefty’s ranked 142nd on Tour in driving accuracy at a problematic 55.56%).

Objects Are Closer Than They Appear 

With a top-seven finish at Quail Hollow McIlroy can recapture the World No. 1 ranking he lost to Luke Donald last week (who’s not on the field). 

McIlroy missed the cut here in 2011. But that’s the last time he missed a cut. And in his 22 starts since that missed cut?  How does 14 top-five finishes and four victories sound. 

With only one player (Mahan) winning more than once on Tour this season it’s difficult to argue any one player is dominating the Tour (at least by the standard that counts most of all – winning).  But you don’t have to look far to see one player is definitely approaching rapidly on the horizon. 

Quail Hollow Nostalgia

2003

David Toms wins the inaugural Wachovia Championship with the highest winning score in tournament history (278).

Fred Couples and Nick Price both shoot six-under 66 and share the opening day lead before fading on the weekend.

2005

Vijay Singh shoots a final round 66 and defeats Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk in a playoff.

With the victory Singh takes over the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings (away from Woods). 

Garcia enters the record books for losing the largest lead on the PGA Tour with 18 holes to play (six strokes).  He shares the dubious distinction with four other players (including Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters).

2007

Remember Rory Sabbatini barking out the exclamations, “I want Tiger.  He’s more beatable than ever.”

Well Sabbatini’s cuckoo comments just might be directly responsible for the implementation of PGA drug testing one year later.

But there’s no question they were absolutely responsible for what happened on Sunday.  Tiger went on to shoot a final round 69, Sabbatini shot a 74, and Woods won the Wachovia Championship for his 57th career Tour victory (13-under 275).

2010

The enormous potential of McIlroy takes center stage for all the world to see as he shoots 16-under Saturday and Sunday and wins the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship just two days before his 21st birthday.

CBS golf analyst David Feherty sums it up best when he says, “One of the greatest finishes I’ve ever seen.  Ever.”

Players To Watch

Rory McIlroy (8/1).  McIlroy took three weeks off to forget about his disappointing (T-40) finish at The Masters.  What remains to be seen is which McIlroy will show up at Wells Fargo where it’s been feast or famine for the World No. 2 ranked player. 

Will it be the dazzling and daring McIlroy who shot a 66 and 62 over the weekend to win in 2010?  Or will it be the listless and common McIlroy who hasn’t broken par in any round at Quail Hollow other than the two just mentioned?

Tiger Woods (9/1).  In five starts here Tiger has finished in the top-11 four times.  But he’s coming off a Masters performance where he didn’t have a single round under par, and his most recent missed cut came at Quail Hollow. 

Woods claims he’s straighted out the problems with his swing that caused him trouble at Augusta.  But I don’t think he’s straightened out the problems that will cause him trouble at Quail Hollow.

I’m expecting Tiger will struggle just to make the cut.

*Phil Mickelson (12/1).  Mickelson’s record at Quail Hollow is impressive.  Six top-10 finishes, 16 of his past 20 rounds have been par or better, and the past five years he’s finished third, twelfth, fifth, second, and ninth.  That’s as good as anyone (except those who’ve won).

On the season he’s finished in the top-5 his last two tournaments and in four of his last six.  And Lefty’s ranked near the top of many important Tour statistical categories: fifth in putts per round (27.88), fourth in birdie or better conversion (35.84%), and third in par breakers.

Sounds like a good bet he’ll notch another top-10 finish right?  I’m not so sure.

The gruesome triple-bogey on No. 4 at the Masters doomed Mickelson’s chance for a fourth green jacket.  And the soon to be 42-year old knows those chances come fewer and farther between with every missed opportunity.

And to make matters worse Phil is trending towards fading at the end of tournaments.  Granted he came from six strokes back to win Pebble Beach, he’s a respectable 13th in scoring average before the cut, and an impressive fifth in third round scoring average (68.88). 

But those numbers swell to 70.38 in the final round (T-35).  Fatigue and injury might be playing a significant role and shouldn’t be overlooked.

With all that said?  Mickelson’s my pick to win.

Lee Westwood (14/1).  In the last 26 events he’s entered Westwood has finished in the top-20 an impressive 21 times (with five top-4 finishes).  And he’s coming off a win at the Indonesian Masters (conceding the field wasn’t particularly strong).

However he’s struggled mightily at Quail Hollow.  He missed the cut in 2006, T-61 in 2007, and T-38 in 2010.  Westwood is trending in the right direction but overall still terrible for the Englishman who’s having a solid season otherwise.

Hunter Mahan (18/1).  Mahan is arguably the Tour’s midseason Player Of The Year (the only player on Tour with multiple victories) and in the past eight events at Quail Hollow he’s missed the cut three times, withdrawn once, and finished T-22, T-17 and T-16 the past three years (with a T-12 best finish in 2008).

Mahan’s going to win again this season, it just won’t be this week.

*Johnathan Byrd (55/1).  Here’s my darkhorse pick.  No one’s picking Byrd to win even though he played well enough to win in 2009 (T-5) and came even closer to winning last year in the playoff loss to Glover. 

Two top-five finishes in three years and the 54-hole record at Quail Hollow (201) makes this an ideal venue for the Clemson alum to pick up his sixth career PGA Tour victory.

Perfect Pairings

Bill Lunde, Bo Van Pelt, John Senden

Ben Curtis, Johnson Wagner, Zach Johnson

Bill Haas, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley

Kyle Stanley, Lucas Glover, Lee Westwood

J.J. Henry, Cameron Tringale, Michael Thompson

Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Geoff Ogilvy

Rory McIlroy, David Toms, Jim Furyk

Carl Pettersson, Nick Watney, Jason Day

Hunter Mahan, Ben Crane, Martin Laird

Wells Fargo Is (Is Not) A Top-5 Best Non-Major

What makes a non-major tournament one of the best on the PGA Tour schedule (course design, event history and tradition, player field, player opinion, viewership, tournament buzz)?

Where would you rank these tournaments commonly mentioned when discussing the best non-majors?  Does the Wells Fargo rank as a top-5 non-major event?

Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill)

Bay Hill ranks as the 33rd favorite course by players and ranked 8th out of 51 in difficulty in 2011.  The Arnold Palmer Invitational was established in 1966.

The “King’s Tournament” has been won by multiple major champions (and dominated by Woods).  It’s tradition for Arnie to greet the winner with a handshake upon leaving the 18th green.  The API is given “invitational status” by the PGA Tour.  It’s the second to last tune-up before the U.S. Open.

The Memorial Tournament (Muirfield Village)

Muirfield Village ranks as the 6th favorite course by players and ranked 19th out of 51 in course difficulty in 2011.  The Memorial Tournament was established in 1976.

Much of the Memorial mystique comes from the Jack Nicklaus name itself.  This is Jack’s tournament.  The Memorial Tournament (like the API) is given “invitational status” by the PGA Tour.  It’s the second to last tune-up before the U.S. Open.

The PLAYERS Championship (TPC Sawgrass)

TPC Sawgrass ranks as the 11th favorite course by players and ranked 28th out of 51 in course difficulty in 2011.  The PLAYERS  Championship was established in 1974.

Known as the “Fifth Major” it has the biggest purse on Tour, awards as many FedExCup points as are awarded in all majors, and nearly always field the top-50 players in the World Golf Rankings.

The Tour Championship (East Lake)

East Lake ranks as the 18th favorite course by players and ranked 18th out of 51 in course difficulty in 2011.  The Tour Championship was established in 1987.  It’s the fourth and final tournament of the FedExCup Playoffs.

Wells Fargo Championship (Quail Hollow)

Quail Hollow ranks as the 14th favorite course by players and ranked 20th out of 51 in course difficulty in 2011.  The Wells Fargo Championship was established in 2003.

Six of the nine champions are also major champions.  It’s the final tune-up before the PLAYERS Championship.

WGC-Bridgestone (Firestone)

Firestone ranks as the 12th favorite course by players and ranked 15th out of 51 in course difficulty in 2011.  The WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone was established in 1976.

Firestone’s signature hole is the 667 yard par 5 No. 16 (dubbed “The Monster”), and because it’s a World Golf Championship the field is always strong and with a large international presence.  It’s the final tune-up before the PGA Championship.

Notes

Quail Hollow will host the 2017 PGA Championship.

Television Coverage

Thursday and Friday: Golf Channel 3:00 – 7:00 p.m. EST

Saturday and Sunday: NBC 3:00 – 6:00 p.m. EST

Radio Coverage

Thursday through Sunday: SiriusXM Satellite Radio 12:00 – 6:00 p.m. EST

Odds

Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum 

You can follow Pete on Twitter @TheGreekGrind

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions. Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas

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GolfWRX was scouring the range and practice greens at the Safeway Open earlier this week, and we have a ton of photos from Napa for your viewing pleasure.

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