Our man takes a comprehensive look at this week's PGA Tour action where he fancies Rory McIlroy to contend at least. Read Steve's in-depth Wells Fargo preview here...
“The switch to Bermuda will certainly not inconvenience Rory and given the slightly weakened field and his excellent course form, I fancy him to go very well. I think he looks worth siding with anyway but he also looks a very plausible back-to-lay bet this week.”
Formally known as the Wachovia Championship, this will be the 12th staging of the very popular Wells Fargo Championship and for the ninth year in-a-row it's a sell-out. Although the line-up isn't as fantastic as we've had in recent years, with both Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in attendance, it's certainly not a bad field.
Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, North Carolina
Par 72 -7,562 yards
Stroke Index in 2013 - 73.04
Designed by George Cobb in 1961, Quail Hollow underwent an extensive renovation by Tom Fazio in 1997. In preparation for the PGA Championship, which is to be held here in 2015, there were a number of changes to the course prior to last year's renewal and there have been even more since.
The 8th hole has been straightened and will in all likelihood be played as a drivable par 4 at some stage of the tournament at least and the 16th hole has been changed dramatically. The fairway has been shifted and lengthened to bring water in to play and the 17th hole, which was tough enough already, has also been lengthened. The last three holes, known as the Green Mile, were very difficult before the changes, averaging over par every year, now they'll be even worse and holding on to win won't be easy. The biggest change of all this year though is the change of grass type on the greens...
A couple of the greens needed to be re-sod just prior to the event last year and to put it frankly, they were all damn right awful. It may well have had something to do with the bizarre result - 1000.0 shot, Derek Ernst beat fellow outsider, David Lynn in a playoff - but there should be no complaints this time around as the bentgrass was ripped out and every green has been replaced with Bermuda.
Live on Sky Sports all four days - 20:00 on Thursday and Friday and 18:00 on Saturday and Sunday
Last Five Winners
2013 - Derek Ernst -8 (playoff)
2012 - Rickie Fowler -14 (Playoff)
2011 - Lucas Glover -15 (playoff)
2010 - Rory McIlroy -15
2009 - Sean O'Hair -11
What will it take to win the Wells Fargo?
Length off the tee has always been advantageous around Quail Hollow and with a wet week leading up to the tournament forecast, combined with the additional yardage following the changes, I fancy it will be more of an advantage than ever before this time around.
Greens in regulation is the most important stat to consider, with 9 of the 11 winners to date ranking inside the top-11 for GIR and good scrambling is vital too. After finishing second last year, David Lynn had this to say on Twitter, "Thanks everyone, didn't particularly play well all week just scrambled me tatties off".
Is there an angle in?
With the change of green type one or two players could improve their course form. Zach Johnson for example has no more than ordinary course form, with a 6th placed finish in 2011 his only top-ten in ten visits, but he's an excellent Bermuda greens putter and he could well relish the change. Look closely at anyone that plays consistently well in Florida where the vast majority of courses are Bermuda.
The Shell Houston Open has proved to be a good guide and now that Quail has the same greens as the Golf Club of Houston, that correlation could easily strengthen. Anthony Kim has won both events and recent Shell winners, Phil Mickelson and D.A Points, have both come close to winning this title.
Is there an identikit winner?
Quail Hollow is a proper test and I'm not in the least bit surprised to see Phil Mickelson in the line-up again as this is a great prep for the US Open - far and away Lefty's biggest career objective now. I think we can largely ignore last year's freak result and expect a return to normality this time around. Other than Ernst, Joey Sindelar, the 2004 champ, is the only winner that wouldn't be described as top-class. Six of the other nine winners have all won majors and the other three, Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim and Sean O'Hair, were all at one stage at least, viewed as highly likely to do so. We've had a few surprise results on the PGA Tour of late but that could come to an end this week, despite the result of 12 months ago. The winner might not be very old though...
Five of the last six winners have been very young (four of them 23 or younger) so don't be afraid to back an up-and-coming player - although they'll probably have to be quite special. Rory McIlroy, at 21, was the youngest, followed by 22-year-old Anthony Kim and 23-year-old Rickie Fowler. All three are very classy. It's such a shame that Kim's career seems to have been lost to injury as he could well have won a major by now and I certainly haven't given up on Fowler winning one.
The stats say Quail is not an easy place to make the running. Last year's winner, Ernst, and Jim Furyk, who beat Trevor Immelman (another major winner) in a playoff in 2006, are the only first round leader to go on to win. Tiger Woods is still the only halfway leader to win and only three third round leaders have gone on to take the title. Sergio Garcia gave up a six-shot 54-hole lead in 2005 so taking on the pace-setters after each round could be a decent strategy to adopt.
As already mentioned, the last three holes are brutally tough. Mickelson held a one-stroke lead with three to play last year but by the time he stood on the 18th tee he was trailing by one. Given the tough finish, and the poor record of third round leaders, anyone posting a score early on Sunday could be sitting pretty.
Rory McIlroy won his first PGA Tour event here in 2010 when he blitzed through the field with a course record 62 in round four. He missed the cut when defending, was beaten in a playoff in 2012, and putted deplorably last year when finishing 10th. And when I say deplorably I really do mean it. This shoddy sample of shocking efforts was from round three alone - on the third hole he missed from 2ft 7, the 5th - 5ft 4, 8th - 6ft 9, 9th - 2ft 10, 11th - 5ft 3, 12th 4ft 11, 14th 5ft 4 and finally, on the 15th, he missed from just 4ft 7. I don't think I've ever seen such a quality player putt so poorly and yet he still hit the front during the final round.
The switch to Bermuda will certainly not inconvenience Rory and given the slightly weakened field and his excellent course form, I fancy him to go very well. The only negative is that he may well perform too well too early. As already mentioned, it's not an easy place to lead all the way and Rory often starts well. I think he looks worth siding with anyway but he also looks a very plausible back-to-lay bet this week.
In contrast to Rory, Phil Mickelson handled the substandard putting surfaces well and topped the putting stats when finishing third 12 months ago. That was his 5th top-five finish and his 7th top-ten in ten starts so it's fair to say he's a fan of Quail too. He'll be keen to get the year back on track after his missed cut at the US Masters and I wouldn't put anyone off him either.
Although he's won numerous times on Bermuda, I'm not convinced the new greens will favour him as much as it will others and given we've had so much rain, the fact that he's so inaccurate from the tee is also a negative but with a course record so strong, it would be silly to discount him and I'd certainly favour him over Lee Westwood on the same price...
The Worksop Wonder has finished 5th and 4th in the last two renewals and he's shown signs of life of late too. He got in to contention at the US Masters before a customary poor final round and he won easily in Malaysia last time out but this is considerably tougher and his price of just 18.017/1 is extraordinarily short given his propensity to cave-in on a Sunday.
Justin Rose won't be handicapped by the green changes as he has plenty of form on Bermuda. He's going in the right direction after injury but he's still a little way off for me and I'm happy to leave him out before the off.
I've backed Rory but I shall be looking to get my stakes back if he starts well and I've also had a very small bet on Phil. I can see him just coming up short again with his inaccuracy from the tee inconveniencing him but if he does get into contention, I want him onside.
As detailed in this week's each-way column, I'm quite keen on Ben Martin and like Joe Dyer, I've also backed course specialist, Lucas Glover, who I fancy will play even better here now that the greens are Bermuda.
And finally, I've also backed Russell Henley, who I also think will enjoy the change in greens. Henley has won on Bermuda twice in the last 16 months on the PGA Tour, he's already a winner in North Carolina (the Chiquita Classic on the Web.Com Tour), and he must have plenty of course experience too...
On the advice of his agent, a member at Quail Hollow, Henley sought help with his game from Quail Hollow pro Charles Frost a few years ago and he's not looked back since. He led the tournament early on in round one last year before finishing a somewhat disappointing 43rd but I'm happy to give him a chance at a nice big price.
Rory McIlroy @ 9.08/1
Phil Mickelson @ 18.5
Ben Martin @ 100.099/1
Russell Henley @ 120.0119/1
Lucas Glover @ 180.0179/1
I'll be back shortly with my preview for this week's European Tour action at The Championship.
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