The PGA Tour’s most vocal and visible star has been conspicuous by his absence since missing the cut at the Masters, opting to withdraw from the following week’s designated event at the RBC Heritage for which he’ll incur a reported $3 million fine, but returns to arguably his favourite haunt at North Carolina’s Quail Hollow.
Site of the Holywood phenom’s first PGA Tour win back in 2010 when he fired a course-record 10-under 62 in the final round to storm to a four-stroke victory, he added another win when capturing the rebranded Wells Fargo Championship in 2015 and then got win number three in the 2021 staging.
At a par of 72 and measuring in excess of 7,500 yards, Quail Hollow is a big-hitter’s course and there aren’t many bigger than the four-time major winner, and it’s a course he clearly feels comfortable on, but an up-and-down season saw him open with a win in the Dubai Desert Classic before returning to the United States where his form has been patchy at best. Runner-up at Bay Hill and third at the WGC Matchplay were the highlights on US Soil as his putting woes returned on the west coast and he struggled with all facets of the game at TPC Sawgrass and Augusta National.
Unusually, McIlroy was not on the press conference schedule, but did speak to some trusted media confidants and explained that the desire for headspace was the reason for withdrawing from the event at Hilton Head and he also spoke of his disgust at his performance in the year’s first major.
Being the only major he’s yet to land, The Masters has become McIlroy’s ‘White Whale’ and him heading for the exit before the weekend came as a severe disappointment to golf fans the world over, never mind the sense of frustration he himself must have felt, but this is an ideal opportunity to get back on the horse ahead of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in a fortnight’s time. McIlroy’s wife, Erica Stoll, hails from Rochester, New York, and Rory is a member at Oak Hill, but whether that has any bearing on his PGA chances is hard to gauge and harder still is assessing in what sort of form he arrives to the outskirts of Charlotte this week.
As with all the designated events, a top-class field has assembled, with McIlroy joined by Shane Lowry and Seamus Power, though both Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler have opted to sit out the event, utilising their one hall pass to skip the Wells Fargo. Nevertheless, 16 of the top-20 in the world rankings are in attendance, and Lowry, ranked 23rd in the world, will fancy his chances at a course where there’s a premium on ball-striking.
Not many have been better tee to green than the Offaly man this year, but consistently, it’s been the shortest club in the bag that’s let him down. In four appearances at Quail Hollow (three times for the Wells Fargo and once for the PGA Championship in 2017) he hasn’t exactly set the world alight, with a 34th placed finish his best result and two missed cuts, but, as previously mentioned, he’s striking the ball better than ever and if his fortunes on the greens improve then we can expect another good week for the former Open champion.
Seamus Power, like Lowry, arrives on the back of a fortnight off, both having elected to skip the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and last week’s Mexico Open, and though Power missed the cut in his last competitive start at the RBC Heritage, it’s an event he’d only played once prior since first gaining PGA Tour status for the 2017 season.
Power made it two-for-two in making the weekend at Augusta, and has made the cut at Quail Hollow in all three appearances, with a 13th place finish in 2019 his best performance. Another who’s got the length to compete on the brutish layout, Power’s early-season form has dipped a little of late and he’ll be keen to send Luke Donald a gentle reminder that he can mix it with the game’s top players.
McIlroy has been installed as the favourite by the bookmakers, with Patrick Cantlay, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele and Viktor Hovland next in the betting markets, but there are several potential dark horses who could capture a substantial payday, none more so than Keith Mitchell who’s been quietly putting an excellent season together and has top 10 finishes here in his last two appearances here, including a third-place finish behind McIlroy in 2021.
The course is best known for its three-hole closing stretch that’s become known as ‘The Green Mile.’ With the par-4 16th (504 yards), par-3 17th (223 yards) and par-4 18th (494 yards) coming up well short of the 1,760 yards to make up an actual mile, the name was coined by a caller to a Charlotte sports radio talk show as an ode to the Stephen King novel in which death row inmates made their final walk upon what was known as The Green Mile, and given the difficult nature of the three holes, the name stuck.
McIlroy will play his opening two rounds alongside Matt Fitzpatrick and Jason Day, beginning Thursday at 07:34 am (12:34 pm Irish time) on the tenth tee, and at 17:54 Irish time off the first in round two, while Power will follow 22 minutes later on both days in the company of Mackenzie Hughes and Webb Simpson.
Lowry is grouped with Adam Scott and Sam Burns, and they go out in the afternoon wave in round one at 6:16 pm Irish time, before facing the quick turnaround and going out for round two at 12:56 on Friday.
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