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Wells Fargo Championship: Course Insight

If you don’t live in North Carolina or pay attention to Golf Digest’s biennial Top 100 U.S. Courses, chances are you’ve never heard of Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, North Carolina.

That’s going to change this week.

When the PGA of America announced the 99th PGA Championship would be played at Quail Hollow Golf Club later this year, Eagle Point was awarded one-year host duty for the Wells Fargo Championship. It’s the first PGA Tour event Eagle Point has ever hosted, and they’ve wasted no expense to make sure this Tom Fazio designed course answers the bell.

Seven of the World’s Top-20 players are in the field, including Dustin Johnson, making his first start since withdrawing from The Masters with a back injury, Adam Scott, fresh off his fifth career top-10 finish at Augusta National, Phil Mickelson, who finished runner-up here in 2010, and defending champion James Hahn.

Members at Eagle Point will tell you this course has always been worthy of hosting a Tour event. And when players experience the stellar conditioning, perfectly manicured fairways, and impeccable greens, they’ll probably be inclined to agree. The course plays firm and fast, demanding absolute precision from tee to green. New tees added specifically for this event have lengthened the course to almost 7,500 yards. Playing corridors are meticulously framed by large oak trees lining the emerald fairways. An impressive variety of holes are made more challenging by understated contours and elevation changes throughout.

Like most Fazio courses, creative bunkering is prominent at Eagle Point. Some bunkers are subtle pot bunkers, while others stretch more than 30-yards long. The 2nd hole doesn’t have any bunkers at all, while the 17th hole has 10 of them, strategically placed to gobble up meandering shots. Eagle Point has been called a poor man's Augusta National, and it’s not difficult to see why. Raised putting surfaces with multiple levels, slanted fairways with uneven lies, and creeks that come into play with wind adding to the danger are just a few of the similarities. A former Augusta National course superintendent was even brought in to bull-nose (or slope) grass into the water on five holes on the course, like on the downhill, par-3, 207-yard 5th hole. Players who come up short might find their ball rolling back into a large pond here with dominant slopes on the green running from back to front.

GPS view of No.17, complete will all 10 bunkers

The par-3, 227 yard 15th hole is the last par-3 on the course and also the longest. A pair of bunkers protect the left and right sides of a kidney-shaped green that’s about twice as wide as it is deep. Shots here are hit into a prevailing wind, and not carrying the front edge can toss bogey on players’ cards in a hurry.

Eagle Point’s par-4s range from 356 yards to 465 yards, and offer a variety of options off the tee. The 356 yard par-4, 7th hole is a great example, where nine bunkers are sprawled down the entire right side of the fairway and green. There’s more room for error on the left side with only two bunkers about 50 yards out, and staying left using a fairway wood or iron will open up a perfect angle into the green. More aggressive players who take driver off the tee can reach in one, but getting plugged in one of the three, deep, greenside bunkers will make for an almost impossible up and down. It’s classic risk-reward at its finest.

View from the tee box on the 431-yard 9th hole

The par-5s range from 554 yards to 602 yards, and here again offer outstanding risk-reward options. The 554 yard par-5, 6th hole plays the shortest of the bunch and will be reachable in two by most players. All the trouble off the tee is on the left side, where a creek meanders along the entire side, before cutting across the fairway about 100 yards out, and then snaking along the right side up to the green. Bail out too far right off the tee to avoid the water, and a bunker and trees in the layup area will cause certain trouble. On approach, it’s almost a mirror situation. Bailing out too far left and a bunker and trees will cause similar problems. The green has two levels and is bowl-shaped in the middle.

Players to Watch

Players who keep their drives in the fairway and have their distance control dialed in will have a significant advantage at Eagle Point. From 150 yards in, few players in the field are sticking it closer than Wesley Bryan, and a majority of approach shots this week will come from this range. Bryan is looking to keep the momentum going from his first Tour win at the RBC Heritage a few weeks ago, but he’s generally struggled keeping the ball in play off the tee this season. Bryan’s success or failure this week will depend on the driver. If he avoids the big mistakes off the tee, look for him to finish top-10 and contend. If the driver’s disobedient, he’s probably looking at nothing better than a top-25.

Prior to withdrawing from The Masters, I’d have picked Dustin Johnson to win every tournament he enters until he shows reason not to. No one’s played better tee-to-green this season than DJ, but the question, of course, is if his back is completely healed. I’m guessing it’s not, and Johnson might be a little tentative off the tee. For this reason, I can’t pick him to win, but I still have him penciled in for a top-15 finish.

Winner Prediction

On a course loaded with trouble off the tee, it might sound irrational or mindless to pick Phil Mickelson as the winner this week, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s been more than 44 months since Phil has won on Tour, and he’s slap-happy with the driver for sure. But Lefty’s also an escape artist with a maestro’s touch from the rough. Mickelson will hit a large percentage of greens this week, and if he can make a few more putts inside 10 feet than he typically has this season, Phil will finally end his winless drought, and the career Grand Slam chatter will heat up in a hurry.

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