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The Wells Fargo Championship is always one of the PGA Tour's 'domestic' highlights. Traditionally the curtain-raiser for the Players Championship, which I'm sure you will agree was a sensational golf tournament, 2015 sees the Tour make its annual visit to the classical Quail Hollow Club 2 weeks later than is the norm. The George Cobb 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, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler tells you all you need to know. Indeed the course will host the 2017 PGA Championship and 2021 President's Cup.
2015 Punters League
Congratulations to Jamie Hennessey who selected the formerly overrated Rickie Fowler plus Ben Martin to win last week's Punters League and grab a £/€25 free bet with Paddy Power. Sean Colgan remains in the overall Punters League lead after 18 weeks from Simon Blight. New entrants are always welcome, so enter your 6 players across the Wells Fargo and Spanish Open on our facebook group now.
The European Tour touches down in Europe itself this week with the Open de Espana. Paul Williams' preview, takes you through the Real Club de Golf El Prat course and a tournament that includes most of the home nation's best players including Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jiminez, Pablo Larrazabal, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Alvaro Quiros.
Quail Hollow is an undulating and ong classical test that rewards aggressive golf. This week's field includes Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama, Phil Mickelson and white hot local Carolina pros in the form of Kevin Kisner, Ben Martin and Bill Haas, although the full field is a little disappointing for the second renewal in succession. So here's my Wells Fargo Championship preview which walks you through some interesting angles that have shaped my final selections:
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 the 2017 PGA Championship. Last year's tournament was the first played on 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 to make the course play as a bruising 7,562 yard Par 72 when played from its tips.
Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, North Carolina: Designer: George Cobb with 2013 re-design; Course Type: Classical; Par: 72; Length: 7,562 yards; 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.
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 -2/-3 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 in combination 17 and 18 were the hardest closing holes on the 2014 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. This course is all about power over accuracy with Quail traditionally ranking in the bottom 10 for Fairways Hit, Greens Hit and Proximity to the Pin.
Winners: 2014: J.B. Holmes (-14); 2013: Derek Ernst (-8); 2012: Rickie Fowler (-14); 2011: Lucas Glover (-15); 2010: Rory McIlroy (-15); 2009: Sean O'Hair (-11).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that 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 tailor-made model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Key players included in the Top 5 of the Predictor include Rory McIlroy (Predictor number 1), Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the Honda Classic / Joburg Open weekend and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour. 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: 2014: Holmes 66/1; 2013: Ernst 500/1; 2012: Fowler 50/1; 2011: Glover 110/1; 2010: McIlroy 66/1; 2009: O'Hair 45/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Quail Hollow is here. Quail Hollow was deluged during the middle weeks of April, so the course is likely to be a llittle on the soft side. Green speeds will be around the 11ft mark so slightly down on last week at TPC Sawgrass. Light breeze will affect the tournament with the PM/AM half of the draw looking to have a slight advantage over the opening 36 holes. Rain on Saturday afternoon and electrical activity on Sunday afternoon could potentially soften the course.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Top line form entering this tournament doesn't always translate to the winner here in Charlotte. Naturally 2015 sees Quail sit post-World Match Play and the Players Championship rather than after the RBC Heritage (Harbour Town) and Zurich Classic (TPC Louisiana), so that may have an impact. However no winner here since Tiger Woods (who else) in 2007 has finished better than 10th in their previous outing. Sean O'Hair (2009) and Rickie Fowler (2012) arrived on the back of finishing 10th at Augusta and TPC Louisiana respectively. J.B. Holmes 12 months ago followed this pattern arriving after finishing 11th the week before in New Orleans. McIlroy (2010), and Glover (2011) had Missed the Cut prior to their victory here and 500/1 shock Derek Ernst came hot off a 41st again in New Orleans.
The one-off rescheduling of the tournament (2016 sees Quail return to its standard pre -Players spot in the schedule) got me thinking about the profile of winners who win the week after TPC Sawgrass. Since The Players moved to the month of May back in 2007, and including tournaments held at TPC Sugarloaf (2007/08), La Cantrera (2009), TPC San Antonio (2010), Colonial (2011) and TPC Four Seasons (2012 - 14), you can see Players finishing positions of post Players tournament winners below:
2007: 16th Zach Johnson; 2008: MC Ryuji Imada; 2009: 32nd Zach Johnson; 2010: 26th Adam Scott; 2011: 2nd (after Play Off) David Toms; 2012: 68th Jason Dufner; 2013: 33rd Sangmoon Bae; 2014: DNP Brendon Todd. Naturally it's possible, but in 8 tournaments only a single winner has gone down the stretch in the heat of battle at TPC Sawgrass the week before. On top of that only Brian Davis has finished consecutively in the Top 5 at both Sawgrass and La Cantrera in 2009.
Quail Hollow undoubtedly rewards attacking golf. Birdie or better hole conversion rates across 2010-14 were 35%, 32%, 32%, 25% and 32% 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 Humana Challenge saw Bill Hass record a 32% birdie or better hole conversion rate on his way to shooting -22. 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.
Key Bookmaker Offers:
Rory is naturally hugely popular this week at a market best (as we published) 7/2. The Predictor Number 1 has a huge chance, so 888sport's triple odds promotion for new customers on Rory or any player at Quail Hollow on their first bet is a cracking price booster - full details here. Paddy Power have again gone 6 places each-way at Quail Hollow as have Stan James - you can check their latest prices here: Paddy | Stan
My selections are as follows:
Forget last week on a golf course best summarised by Lefty in his own words; "I can't believe I've actually won here." Instead Sawgrass was a positive for me as Phil shook off 3 weeks of rust, a factor he increasingly points to as a problem. Let's look at Augusta instead where he finished 7th in Greens Hit and 13th in Putting Average on his way to his 10th runner-up finish in a Major Championship. 2 Eagles and 19 Birdies was third only to Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose and with the putter finally firing, Quail Hollow couldn't have come at a better time. No United States-located PGA Tour win since TPC Scottsdale in 2013 must sting, as must 37th in the President's Cup qualification standings. A victory at Quail Hollow would be second only to the US Open in terms of career winning omissions and it's worth remembering that Phil has finished in the Top 5 here 4 times since 2007. Despite being in awful form 12 months ago Phil shot an opening round -5/67 and then a 3rd round -9/63 to be right in the mix after 54 holes. The time could be right for another Rory vs Phil head-to-head in North Carolina.
Louis Oosthuizen can bully receptive Par 72s to a level that very few others can. He may be making his first visit to Quail Hollow this week, but course debutants can go well here and Louis' CV certainly fits the bill. A confident Oosthuizen in 2012 finished 3rd at the GC of Houston which was followed a week later by his Augusta play-off defeat to Bubba Watson. Later in the summer 4th at Firestone, 21st at Kiawah Island and 5th at Bethpage Black (Rees Jones re-design) was followed by that unforgettable duel in receptive conditions at TPC Boston with Rory McIlroy where ultimately even -19 wasn't enough to beat the soft course king McIlroy. A fit again Oosthuizen is focussing purely on the PGA Tour from his Florida base this year and that's paying dividends as 6th at Doral and 9th at Bay Hill featured his standard approach play excellence. Since then 19th at Augusta and a cracking 7th on course debut at Harbour Town, which is far too tight for the South African, both featured lots of birdies. Under the radar and I think Quail will suit his aggressive nature.
Justin Thomas impressed again last week. His record-breaking 10 birdies on Saturday fired him into contention which, for a Tour rookie, is rare in the extreme at The Players. Justin tied with Kevin Kisner at the top of the birdie chart on course debut continuing a trend which has seen the University of Alabama product shoot 1 Eagle and 21 birdies at TPC Louisiana and 1 Eagle and 17 Birdies at Harbour Town. So it's clear that on a course where real aggression is needed, Thomas has huge firepower. Throw in a 300 yard Driving Distance average, a high ball flight, an aggressive Going for the Green nature and the fact that he lies 23rd in Tour Scoring Average as a rookie and I start to get the feeling that Quail Hollow will be right up his street this week. I don't doubt that Thomas can play classical layouts as last season saw the 22 year-old finish a cracking 10th at Torrey Pines and he went on to grab his first web.com win at on the classical, Mackenzie-designed, Scarlett Course at Ohio State Golf Club beating Sean O'Hair (2009 Champion) in the process. Should go well in North Carolina.
The revitalised Sean O'Hair has been a revelation in 2015 and Quail Hollow will be a welcome sight for the 32 year-old. The 2009 Champion has a real affinity with the golf course and the second-year Bermudagrass greens won't hold any fears for O'Hair who ranks up there with Spieth, Reed and Kisner in a select group of the best Bermuda green putters in 2015. O'Hair is winless since 2011 when he captured the RBC Canadian Open, but 2015 has seen Sean finish 2nd at Copperhead, 29th at Bay Hill, 6th at Harbour Town and 12th at TPC Louisiana where he double-bogeyed the 72nd to cost us an each-way return at 45/1. After such disappointment it's always easy to abandon a player, but O'Hair is making birdies for fun right now and is one of those players who could well surprise this week. This comment from his winner's interview in 2009 is interesting "You know, obviously I've been playing really well. All year there's been little disappointments here and there, although I've been playing some great golf."...can lightening strike twice this week?
Finally regulars will know I have been monitoring D.A. Points for months now. With GIR%, Putting Average and Scrambling stats converging beautifully I can see the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach and 2013 Shell Houston Open winner going really well this week. Points has always thrived on longer, classical golf courses and there are no doubts that he favours Par 72s. So the man with the 'nappy factor', whose best finishes in 2015 have been 17th at Bay Hill and 12th last time out at TPC Louisiana, continues to highlight that trend right now. With his exemption for his Houston win expiring in August, Points sits 145th in the FedEx Cup standings and needs to step up to the plate and deliver. He finished with a closing round 65 in New Orleans 3 weeks ago and with 22 birdies, offset by 6 bogeys he finished 6 shots shy of Justin Rose on similar MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens. You may remember Points being involved in a play-off with Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler here in 2012 (he topped Greens in Regulation), and he backed that up with 16th here in 2013 a week after finishing 2nd at TPC Louisiana.
Our predictions and final tips for the 2016 Wells Fargo Championship will be published here on the Tuesday before the event.