Rory McIlroy turns 32 this week and the PGA Tour schedule might have provided him with the perfect present in the form of a return to the Quail Hollow Club.
The quality of any golfer can be measured by the variety of courses on which he can compete – the great contend on any grass, in any climate, regardless of design – yet even the very finest have their favourites tracks.
And right up there among McIlroy’s pet layouts is this week’s venue for the Wells Fargo Championship.
In nine visits to the course for the event he’s landed eight finishes of T16th or better including a win on debut in 2010 and a second triumph in 2015.
“I love this place,” he said in 2019. “I even feel like I don’t even have to play that good and I can still get it round.”
He’s about to test those thoughts more thoroughly than he would ever have expected because his last five strokeplay scores have been among the most dispiriting of his career.
The desperate run began at the Arnold Palmer Invitational where he actually opened with a 66 to tie the first round lead. He also closed it with a 76 that left him “a little dejected” and worse, far worse, was to come.
It’s not that he missed the cut at both THE PLAYERS Championship and the Masters, it’s more that he never looked like doing anything else, carding 79-75 at the former and 76-74 at the latter.
His world ranking has tumbled to its lowest point since 2009, the year before his first visit to Quail Hollow and he desperately needs the place to work its magic on him again.
The good news, and he needs some of that, is that there have been echoes of his current plight in previous visits.
Ahead of the debut, as we’ll see, there were doubts being floated about his game and prior to his second win a few words with putting coach Dave Stockton transformed his work on the greens.
He’s recently started working with swing coach Pete Cowen – can he pull off another swift renaissance?
He’s priced 18/1 to win this week with Bet365. Is that getting into backable territory?
Let’s take a look back at McIlroy’s relationship with Quail Hollow.
2010 – the dramatic debut
Having finished second in the 2009 European Tour rankings, McIlroy that he would be joining the PGA Tour the following year, but the early results were not good.
He didn’t make the last 16 in the WGC World Match Play, couldn’t make the top 30 in either the Honda Classic or WGC CA Championship, and missed the cut at both the Houston Open and the Masters.
America was beginning to ask questions about the Northern Irish wonder kid and his quest for a first seasonal top 30 didn’t look promising when he only made the weekend of what was then called the Quail Hollow Championship by the skin of his teeth and nine shots adrift of the leader.
However, a third round 66 didn’t just revive the spirits, it lit the blue touch paper for an audacious bid for victory.
He started Sunday tied seventh, four shots back, and his final round 62 not only allowed him to catch those at the top of the leaderboard, he more or less lapped them: the winning margin was four.
McIlroy was jubilant and America persuaded of his promise. “I flushed it,” he said and two days later celebrated his 21st birthday.
2012 – the near-miss
The defence had not gone well. In fact, McIlroy missed the cut, his only failure to make the top 20 in nine starts at Quail Hollow in this tournament.
A year later he overcame another slow start to make a three-man playoff that was ultimately won by Rickie Fowler, but the event once again impacted on his career because the result saw him return to the top of the world rankings.
“A little consolation,” he said. “But I’d prefer to win the tournament.”
2013 – setting the pace
Six birdies in a blistering seven hole spell in the first round saw him grab a share of the early lead, but he couldn’t maintain the pace.
He ended the week tied tenth and a year later added tied eighth.
2015 – the second win
“Excited to be back, love it here,” he said ahead of the 2015 tournament before settling into a familiar pattern: a sluggish Thursday followed by an electric round at the weekend, this time a sensational Saturday 61 that turned a three shot deficit into a four shot lead.
“I feel like there’s great flow to this golf course,” he explained. “It allows you to get out of your own way and I’ve got great memories here.
“I think I’ve probably birdied every hole on this golf course so figure there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do it again. It’s a cool feeling.
“You never quite know when you’re going to get in the zone, but when it happens, you have to realize it and just go with it.”
A 69 on Sunday didn’t just seal the deal – it left him a massive seven blows clear of the field.
“The golf course sets up perfectly for me,” he reiterated.
“I had a goal today to go out there and birdie the par-5s and the two drivable par-4s. I knew if I made 6 birdies out there there was pretty much no chance that anyone could catch me.
“With my length and the way I’m driving it, it’s a big advantage around here and it showed.”
2019 – another quick start
Two 73s sabotaged his second defence of the title in 2016, although he still finished fourth, and Quail Hollow’s hosting of the 2017 PGA Championship seemed a golden opportunity to break his major drought. Instead, he finished a flat T22nd.
In 2019 he started with a 66, his lowest opening lap of the course, which left him tied with Joel Dahmen at the top of the leaderboard.
“I like trees,” he said. “Seriously. I like tree-lined golf courses. I like that it gives you definition, I like that it frames holes for you. I love that.”
Asked about the difference between how he feels at Augusta National compared to Quail Hollow he said: “I’ve won here a couple of time – that’s the difference.”
Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it three wins and finished eighth.
Source: Golf 365