Golfers look ahead to major championship venues to gauge their chances of winning.
Rory McIlroy has had the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club circled on his calendar for some time.
McIlroy loves him some Quail Hollow, which has hosted the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship for the past 15 years, with the exception of this season.
The Northern Irishman recorded his first PGA Tour victory in his first visit to the course in 2010, added a second title in 2015 and lost in a playoff in 2012. He has finished outside the top 10 just once in seven Wells Fargo starts.
“I’ve always played well here. I've always felt comfortable on this golf course,” McIlroy said. “This has been a week I’ve been looking forward to for a long time and I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I’m showing up for this week feeling like my game is in good shape, as well.”
Branden Grace broke the longstanding major championship single-round scoring record with a 62 last month in the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
McIlroy has twice carded a 62 or better at Quail Hollow. He posted a 62 in the final round in 2010 to complete a 16-under weekend after barely making the cut, and did one better in 2015, carding a course-record 61 in the third round that included nine birdies in a 10-hole stretch en route to a tournament record 21-under 267 winning score.
I definitely don’t want to be in the mind-set this week of wanting to make any type of statement or go out and prove myself. I’m past that point. I’ve proven myself enough over the last nine years of my career.
McIlroy is the betting favorite this week largely because of his track record at Quail Hollow.
“There are some golf courses you go to that give you that feeling that you don’t really have to have your best game and you still feel like you have a chance to win, and that’s sort of how it feels here,” McIlroy said. “I just feel good around here. I don’t know what it is. I’ve shot a couple of really low scores. I’ve got some great memories. I think once you go back to a place where you do have great memories, all that starts to come flooding back to you and it makes you feel good about yourself. That’s sort of how I feel around here.”
When McIlroy shot the 61 at Quail Hollow in 2015, Jordan Spieth had won twice early that year and culminated a four-tournament stretch of two runner-up finishes and two wins with a Masters victory. At the time, McIlroy said he wanted to reiterate his position as the world’s No. 1 golfer.
Dustin Johnson is No. 1 and No. 2 Spieth is coming off two wins in his past three starts, including the British Open to pull within one of McIlroy’s major total with three. Now No. 4 in the world, McIlroy, 28, isn’t necessarily out to prove anything this week, just win another major.
“I definitely don’t want to be in the mind-set this week of wanting to make any type of statement or go out and prove myself,” McIlroy said. “I’m past that point. I’ve proven myself enough over the last nine years of my career. Obviously I wouldn’t have won as much as I would have liked this year, and there’s been a few components to that, injury-wise, changing equipment and stuff. It has been a bit of a transitional year.”
McIlroy’s last win, his 13th on the PGA Tour, came in the Tour Championship in September, gave him the FedExCup crown and was his second win of the 2016 PGA Tour FedExCup playoffs.
McIlroy has gone 14 events without a win. He missed two months earlier this season with a rib injury, recently changed caddies and also changed equipment, signing a deal with TaylorMade in May with Nike getting out of the golf equipment business.
He is 43rd in FedExCup points, but is coming off a pair of top-five finishes in the British Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday.
“My form is better coming into this event than it was going into The Open, obviously coming off the back of a couple of missed cuts,” McIlroy said. “I'm coming off the back of a couple of top fives. Things are a bit different than they were a couple of weeks ago.”
McIlroy already has two PGA Championship titles, having won in 2012 at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course and 2014 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.
The Quail Hollow that will test 97 of the top 100 players in the Official World Golf Ranking this week is not exactly the same course McIlroy has blistered in the past.
It has been lengthened to a robust 7,600 yards and toughened with renovations over the past 15 months overseen by Tom Fazio, and par has been dropped from 72 to 71.
It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that’s so fresh in my mind. I’m so happy about that, I can’t add pressure to this week. I’m free rolling, and it feels good.
Jordan Spieth on the potential of becoming the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam
There are essentially three new holes among the first five. The par-4 first hole has been lengthened to 524 yards, the new fourth hole is a 184-yard par-3 and the new fifth hole is a 449-yard par-4.
“Obviously there has been a few changes and there’s a couple holes that look a little different, but for the most part 15 of the 18 holes are pretty much the same,” McIlroy said. “It used to be you got through the first five holes here at 1- or 2-under par and that was a decent start, and now you get through the first five holes at even par and that's when the golf course starts to open up for you. I still feel like the golf course gives you plenty of chances.”
Spieth, who can become the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam this week after just turning 24, has a lot less experience at Quail Hollow.
He has played in the Wells Fargo just once in 2013 and tied for 32nd with rounds of 69, 71, 75 and 73. But he enters the tournament in top form, having won the Travelers Championship and British Open and tying for 13th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational over the past eight weeks.
“It was only two weeks ago that I was able to get the third leg, and that’s so fresh in my mind. I’m so happy about that, I can’t add pressure to this week. I’m free rolling, and it feels good,” Spieth said. “I’m about as kind of free and relaxed at a major than I think I've ever felt.”
In the PGA Championship, Spieth missed his first two cuts in 2013 and ’14, finished second to Jason Day in 2015 and tied for 13th last year.
He’ll be challenged by Quail Hollow’s length but likes the greens. “I love these Bermuda greens and I feel like they are a good style and speed of greens to kind of get my putting right where I want it,” Spieth said.