Thunderstorms played havoc (for the second year running) with the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, producing an unsatisfactory 54 hole tournament and a shock winner in the form of Brian Stuard who was 500/1 with some firms pre-event last week. With plenty of rain prevalent across the south east of America at the moment, players arriving in North Carolina this week to play the masterpiece which is Quail Hollow will also be greeted by lush, soft conditions.
The Wells Fargo Championship is always one of the PGA Tour's 'domestic' highlights. Back in its traditional Tour schedule position as the curtain-raiser for the Players Championship, the classical Quail Hollow Club is a course that's revered by most who play here. The George Cobb original design has always attracted huge acclaim from the world's best players since it was first played in 2003 and a Champions' List that includes David Toms, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy (twice) tells you all you need to know - indeed the course will host next year's US PGA Championship and 2021 President's Cup.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Trophee Hassan II - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: This George Cobb design was built in 1961, but only after a Tom Fazio re-design in the late 1990s was it finally added to the Tour schedule in 2003. Since then the course has won much acclaim from the world's best, so much so that the PGA of America decided to give Quail Hollow the 2017 PGA Championship. 2014 saw the course re-designed with the biggest change being the introduction of hardier MiniVerde Ultradwarf Bermudagrass green complexes which replaced the old A1 Bentgrass surface. To accommodate the future requirements of the PGA Championship, the 15th fairway was shifted and holes 15-18 were lengthened by a total of 70 yards so that the course played at 7,562 yards, par 72. 2016 sees the 7th, which is a par 5, extended 13 yards (545 yards) taking the overall yardage to a bruising 7,575 yards from its tips.
Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, North Carolina: Designer: George Cobb with 2013 Tom Fazio re-design; Course Type: Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,575 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 4; Fairways 419 Bermudagrass with perennial Rye; Rough: 419 Bermudagrass with perennial Rye 2.5"; Greens: 6,500 sq.ft average featuring MiniVerde Ultradwarf Bermudagrass; Tournament Stimp: 11ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 71.84 (-0.16), Difficulty Rank 25 of 49 courses. 2013: 73.04 (+1.04), Difficulty Rank 10 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.55 (+0.55), Rank 13 of 48 courses. 2015: 71.92 (-0.08), Difficulty Rank of 20 of 52 courses.
Quail Hollow Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Quail Hollow, and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: The key to winning at Quail Hollow is to score heavily on the par 5s and play the other 56 holes at around -3/4 or slightly better. Easy in theory but harder in practice as, for a start, 3 of the 4 par 3s measure 210, 221 and 250 yards. The par 4s are just as difficult with the closing 'Green Mile' stretch of the 16th-18th featuring a newly extended 508 yard par 4, a 221 yard par 3 and the famous uphill closing hole which is a 493 yard par 4. It's hardly a surprise therefore that 17 and 18 are traditionally one of the hardest set of closing holes on the Tour. 5 of the other par 4s measure over 450 yards making Quail Hollow the third longest course on the current PGA Tour schedule, just behind Congressional (par 71) and Torrey Pines.
Quail Hollow is all about power. The course had fairways that were the 3rd hardest to hit (49.06%) on Tour last year, greens which were the 12th hardest to hit (61.98%) and pin positions which were the 6th hardest in terms of Proximity to the Pin. The story statistically becomes clearer when you add into the mix that Quail had a 297 yard average driving distance last term, which was good enough for the top-12 on Tour in 2015. The sheer length of the course presents the biggest challenge as the course ranked 20th hardest in terms of Going for the Green and 10th hardest for those who went for it and actually hit the putting surface. The two sets of par 3s (6th hardest) and par 4s (17th hardest) are particularly difficult to score on, so those with the skill sets to hit the ball a long way, with a modicum of accuracy (look at total driving) have a huge advantage to attack the set of par 5s which were only the 30th hardest on Tour in terms of Scoring Average last term. With plenty of rain in the build-up to the event, also look for players with an aptitude to play well in receptive conditions - the soft variable tab in our Predictor Model is well worth a look.
Winners: 2015: Rory McIlroy (-21); 2014: J.B. Holmes (-14); 2013: Derek Ernst (-8); 2012: Rickie Fowler (-14); 2011: Lucas Glover (-15); 2010: Rory McIlroy (-15).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for the Wells Fargo Championship which are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Wells Fargo Championship predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Rory McIlroy (Predictor Number 1), Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Honda Classic / Perth International and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2015: Rory McIlroy 7/2; 2014: Holmes 66/1; 2013: Ernst 500/1; 2012: Fowler 50/1; 2011: Glover 110/1; 2010: McIlroy 66/1. Average: 133/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Charlotte is here. As we saw in New Orleans last week, the south east of the United States has seen plenty of electrical storms in recent days and Charlotte has been hit on a daily basis since Saturday. The course has taken 47mm of rain over that time period so expect lush, receptive course conditions. No rain is forecast during the tournament. but a north westerly wind, gusting up to 20 mph will feature on the opening 2 days. All in all though, expect 72 holes and a scheduled Sunday finish!
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Wells Fargo Championship since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how Quail Hollow course has set up in the past and what specific skills it requires:
Phil Mickelson: "I love playing here. I love what they've done to the golf course, softening some of the contouring. The beauty of Quail Hollow is in its simplicity. Tee to green one of the best layouts we have. It's really one of our best courses we have. It's a course, again, that I feel like I should play well on. The irony of the situation, I've actually won at Sawgrass last year -- last week's event which is just unbelievable. I haven't won here where I really have -- it's such a perfectly suited golf course for me that here at Quail Hollow that that's kind of the irony of the situation. I'm looking to try to fix that. I think that it's going to be a good week."
Adam Scott: "Yes. It's much like all the great courses of the world, really, where when you play well you get rewarded and if you're not quite on your game it is a real challenge and a struggle to get it around in a good score. That's the beauty of the best designed golf courses, they reward good shots. And thinking about the course, even though I haven't played here for a few years, there's a real opportunity, 5 through 15 to have a really great round with par-5s that are reachable, eagles. You can really have a good score. I think back to a couple rounds where I've got it going, been 8-under through 11 holes and when in the same breath you can go out and just miss a few shots in the wrong spots and you're struggling to be even par. That's what all the great courses have."
Webb Simpson: "I think 16 was a hole, before that it was a tough hole, now it's a really tough hole. I think the wind is going to affect that hole a good amount. If you get it downwind, the fairways are firm, you could have a short iron, but it's 510 yards, whatever it is, that there are going to be some guys hitting woods in this week. Then 17 is extremely long as well. I've been hitting 4‑iron or hybrid it seems like every day. So a lot of it is going to be dependent on the wind. But they're extremely difficult. I can't think of three holes in golf, including majors that are tougher finishing holes than these."
Rory McIlroy: "They're obviously new greens but the surfaces are really good. I think the characteristics of most of the greens are the same but some of the slopes aren't as severe as they used to be and I think that's a good thing. They're obviously still gradual slopes and they feed off the greens but some of the slopes on greens aren't as severe, which is a good thing. But the greens are firm, and this is going to be the softest we will get it all week after the rain last night. So they're going to get firmer as the week goes on and it's going to be tough. You're going to have to control the spin on your ball and make sure that you're hitting from the fairway because if you're hitting from the rough into these greens there is no chance to start it. But for how new the greens are I think they're in fantastic shape, especially after what happened to the greens last year; it's obviously a great improvement and I'm sure they will be looking toward the PGA in '17. They will be perfect."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Tom Fazio has performed two updates on this course across 1996-1997 and 2013. For those looking for Fazio course specialists check out results at Atunyote GC (Turning Stone Championship 2007-10), Conway Farms (2013 and 2015 BMW Championship) and the Raptor Course Greyhawk GC (Fry's.com Open 2008/09). Fazio has had re-design input into Riviera Country Club (Northern Trust Open) and the Seaside Course at Sea Island (RSM Classic).
Quail Hollow undoubtedly rewards attacking golf. Birdie or better hole conversion rates across 2010-15 were 35%, 32%, 32%, 25%, 32% and 38% respectively. The outlying 25% number was in 2013 when poor green conditions combined with plenty of wind turned the tournament into more of a grind. To put these Quail numbers into perspective, this year's Career Builder Challenge saw Jason Dufner record a 42% birdie or better hole conversion rate on his way to shooting -25. With winning scores typically at -14/-15 here in recent years, this tournament is clearly all about making plenty of birdies on the shorter par 4s and the par 5s as bogeys really are unavoidable elsewhere.
For me it's all about powerful, high approach and fearless, attacking golf at the end of the day, similar to the skill sets required at Augusta. Hardly surprising therefore to see the amazing tournament records of Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson plus other strong classical golf course players like Rickie Fowler, J.B. Holmes and Sean O'Hair topping leaderboards. The soft conditions this week will only exacerbate the need for consistent, aggressive approach play.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there's a couple of other offers out there:
My selections are as follows:
Regular readers will know that I backed J.B. Holmes at the Valero Texas Open a couple of weeks back and an 11th place finish there has done little to be put me off the Brandenton, Florida resident this week on a course where he won 24 months ago. Fact is that Holmes, who sits 9th in the US Ryder Cup standings, arrives in Charlotte with a game that's perfect for Quail Hollow. Power to burn, a high ball flight, an up-trending greens in regulation performance and an all-round game that has ranked 3rd at Augusta and 4th at TPC San Antonio places J.B. in a very nice spot. Birdies have also flowed nicely of late, so all in all I think the Kentuckian is backable this week on a course where he's shot rounds of 65, 66, 67, 68 and a couple of 69s over previous appearances. His win here in 2014 came at 66/1, but last year's triumph in soft conditions on the scoreable par 72 at the GC of Houston came at 28/1 and it's interesting to note that the 2-time TPC Scottsdale champion won his second title 24 months after he'd claimed his maiden PGA Tour title there.
In Rickie Fowler and Derek Ernst we have a couple of very different talents who both lost their Tour maiden tag at Quail Hollow at 50/1 and 500/1 respectively. After being one of the most backed non-winners prior to last week's Zurich Classic, Daniel Berger did little wrong in finishing a respectable 20th at -8/208 but, like Holmes in Texas the week before, a couple of damaging doubles cost Daniel a real shot at Brian Stuard, Jamie Lovemark and Byeong-Hun An in a tournament which was ruined by the weather. Again though I like Berger at Quail Hollow this week as he has sufficient power, a consistent tee-to-green game and, as we've seen recently, some serious scoring ability when the putter gets hot as it was across the 2nd Round last week when he shot a scorching -7/65 to position himself in 4th place. Berger's debut here 12 months ago featured a 68, however a disappointing 74 on Sunday undid what could have been an each-way place finish. I get the feeling it's a case of when, not if in terms of Berger seriously challenging for the win and the Mini Verde Bermudagrass putting surfaces will hold no fear for the 23 year-old Floridian.
Since his last visit to Quail Hollow, Berger starred in the FedEx Cup Playoffs after finishing 12th at TPC Boston and then 2nd to Jason Day at Conway Farms, highlighting a player who's happy to mix it with the best players in the world. A sluggish start to 2016 was almost inevitable with invites to all of the Major's and WGC's assured, but of late a contending 11th at Copperhead, a fast-finishing 5th at GC of Houston and a stunning debut 10th at Augusta - which featured Berger going out in high pressure pairings with Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy at the business end of the tournament - simply reinforce the point that Berger has the mental strength for the job. For me a real threat this week at a tournament which I'm sure he'll see as a huge opportunity to break his duck.
Kevin Chappell is another maiden who's clearly due and a soft but breezy Quail Hollow should be right up the 29 year-old Californian's street this week. Chappell, who's undoubtedly feeling more comfortable when in contention, has finished 11th (2014) and 16th (2015) here across his past 2 outings at Quail and 3 of his last 5 rounds here have been 66, 67 and 68. Any player stringing those kind of scores together this week will be right in the mix. A look at Chappell's CV highlights a superb set of results across a host of US classical courses including 6th at Pebble Beach (2009), 3rd at Congressional (2011 US Open), 2nd at Muirfield Village (2013), 13th at Valhalla (2014 PGA Championship) and 2nd at Bay Hill this year. 9th at Harbour Town and a back-door 4th last time out at TPC San Antonio (he'd finished 2nd there in 2011) highlight the progress Kevin is making in terms of both consistency and having the mental edge to play well when returning to venues where he's had success in the past.
After finishing a brilliant 4th at Augusta, Paul Casey went off at a best price of 18/1 for the RBC Heritage the following week. Now arguably Harbour Town is a little too tight for the Englishman who, like all of the other Augusta contenders, suffered from mental fatigue in South Carolina. However despite a couple of missed cuts here when Casey wasn't focussing solely on the PGA Tour, I'm thinking that Quail Hollow will be right up Casey's alley this week at a 50/1 price point which I find appealing. More importantly though Casey has a whole host of correlating course form across Riviera (2nd 2015), PGA National (3rd 2015), Doral (7th this year, 6th 2010), Colonial (5th 2010), Firestone South (4th 2006), Sedgefield (3rd 2015) and East Lake (4th 2010, 5th 2015). His one and only PGA Tour victory came at the GC of Houston in 2009 which again correlates well with Quail Hollow and, for me, it appears that Paul is taking domestic PGA Tour tournaments seriously after 2nd at TPC River Highlands (losing to Bubba Watson in a play-off) and 3rd at Sedgefield last season in his quest to deliver his 2nd title on US shores.
It's happened before and will happen again. Players who lose, sometimes in harrowing circumstances and by the closest of margins, but then go on to triumph the very next week. Think David Toms (33/1) in 2011, Kyle Stanley in 2012 (66/1) or Billy Horschel (66/1) in 2014. Looking back these are massive prices I think you'll agree for players who'd played brilliantly and just missed out the week before. Jamie Lovemark played some amazing golf last week, but ultimately 3 fives across the par 5 18th cost him a maiden PGA Tour title which instead has changed the life of journeyman Brian Stuard. Naturally such a defeat will sting, but a quick look at Lovemark's web.com CV suggests that Jamie is quite buoyant when it comes to putting close calls behind him quickly. He loves par 72s, played well in soft conditions last week and his power/risk-reward style of golf is perfect for Quail Hollow. Naturally Quail and TPC Louisiana share Mini Verde Bermudagrass putting surfaces and Lovemark fired a 68 last time he played here in 2012. He's a different beast these days.
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