The Wells Fargo Championship returns to Quail Hollow this week after a one-year hiatus while hosting the 2017 PGA Championship. Quail underwent significant alterations for last year’s final major, most notably the first hole – which was changed to a 524-yard par 4.
This week, however, players will see the George W. Cobb track play more like it did prior to the PGA Championship, with No. 1 now a shorter, but still demanding 495-yard par-4, and the course checking in at 7,442 yards as opposed to the 7,600 yard length it played at for the major. Pin placements will also return to what they were prior to the PGA Championship. Here are five things you need to know about the 16th version of the Wells Fargo Championship.
Inside the Field
In one of the strongest fields of the PGA Tour season, 15 of the World’s top 25 players and nine of the top-14 will be in Charlotte this week for the final event before all eyes turn to The PLAYERS Championship. Two-time Wells Fargo champion Rory McIlroy joins Masters champion Patrick Reed, FedEx Cup Playoff leader Justin Thomas, and Rickie Fowler as headliners in the field. Tiger Woods returns to Quail Hollow for the first time since 2012. In six starts here Woods has picked up three top-3 finishes, including a victory in 2007, but has also missed the cut twice. Phil Mickelson has a tournament record nine top-10 finishes here but has never won. Brian Harman is the returning champion after winning last year at Eagle Point, while James Hahn is the last champion to win this event at Quail back in 2016. Five of the last eight champions have failed to make the cut in their following appearance.
Changes to Quail Hollow
Players who weren’t here in 2017 will notice some big changes at Quail Hollow since their last visit. In addition to Hole No. 1 being changed for the tournament, the 4th hole is now a 167-yard par-3 and will be an entirely new challenge with a large undulating green fronted by three bunkers. A new hole was built on No. 5, taking out a par-5 and putting in a 449-yard par-4 that plays down and back up a shallow valley to a hillside green. Changes made to the 462-yard par-4 No. 11 were made with 2021 Presidents Cup in mind and make it a formidable test. The hole was lengthened nearly 40 yards and a large oak tree in the corner of the dogleg was replaced by two large bunkers. In order to get more coverage of The Green Mile (Hole Nos. 16, 17, and 18) during the Presidents Cup Nos. 10, 11, and 9 will be played as 16, 17, and 18 for that event.
Player Concerns about Course
There’s been some concern by players who weren’t here for the PGA Championship about the difficulty of the course, since they have yet to see the course changes. Quail Hollow responded by overseeding the Bermuda fairways and rough with perennial rye. Greens and approaches were overseeded with “poa trivialis.” The result will be fairways and greens more receptive to holding shots, and greens that run one to three points slower on the Stimpmeter. The rough was also cut shorter to just two inches. Quail remains a formidable test, but you can expect to see some lower than normal scoring this week.
The Green Mile
Quail Hollow is a course you try to score on for the first 15 holes, then hold on for dear life on the final three. The diabolical 1,223 yard stretch nicknamed “The Green Mile” begins with the 506-yard par-4 16th hole. The tee shot narrows into a landing zone with bunkers on the right and water in play all along the left. Hitting the green is even more demanding, as the putting surface falls off quickly into water left and behind. A right greenside bunker is a tough up-and down. The 223-yard par-3 No. 17 requires a forced carry over water to a green that slopes right to left. Like on No. 16, the green falls off into water left and behind. The finishing 494-yard, par-4 18th hole calls for a draw off the tee and has to avoid a bunker on the right and creek meandering along the entire left side. Stepping onto the tee at No. 18 on Sunday with a one-shot lead is as nerve-wracking as it gets.
Keys to Victory
Quail Hollow is designed to identify the most deserving winner and has earned its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in golf. It requires a higher standard of play from tee to green. The rough is short but thick enough that it will penalize inaccurate drives and iron play. The greens are slower, but still firm enough that speed and undulation won’t surrender victory to a hot putter. Perhaps the greatest challenge at Quail Hollow is fighting off the fear that comes with a reduced margin for error on so many holes. Key statistics you’ll want to look at this week include: Total Driving, Approaches from 150-175 Yards, Greens in Regulation, and Proximity to Hole.
Justin Thomas is one of the longest hitters on Tour and stripes the ball with every club as well as anyone (he’s ranked 5th in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green). Thomas is also developing the kind of gritty patience and resilience that’s required to handle difficult, penal courses like Quail Hollow. Justin can climb to World No. 1 with a T-12 finish or better this week, and won’t likely be unnerved at the prospect of unseating current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson like he was last month at the Dell Match Play Championship. Thomas hasn’t finished lower than T-22 all season, and he plays well with some great memories in Charlotte (with a victory here last year at the PGA Championship and a T-7 finish at the Wells Fargo in 2015). Look for a Sunday duel between Thomas and Rory McIlroy with Thomas picking up his third win of the season.