CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s a buzz around Quail Hollow this week.
OK, so maybe it’s not the same buzz that was circulating here the last time a tournament was held on this course — the PGA Championship just nine months ago — but it’s a buzz nonetheless.
And there’s good reason for it.
This week’s edition of the Wells Fargo Championship includes 15 of the top-25 players in the current world ranking, with the likes of Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson teeing it up, plus the world’s 93rd-ranked player — some guy named Tiger Woods.
The buzz isn’t just about those guys, though. It feels like a “Welcome Back from Spring Break” week on the PGA Tour.
Think about it: Following the Masters, we had the RBC Heritage, a fun event with a laid-back vibe but an average field; after that, it was the largely forgettable Valero Texas Open; and then last week, the Zurich Classic, which featured a solid list of stars, but felt more like a glorified member-guest.
So, what does it all mean for this week? I’m glad you asked.
Players in this field should come in refreshed and relaxed and ready to grind again. There aren’t too many times during the season when this type of atmosphere converges at a non-major, but I’m expecting the best players to be on top of their games at this one, just as they’ve been in two other similar pockets of the schedule.
Even though there was only one week between the PGA Championship and the first playoff event (Northern Trust) last year, the latter served as both a literal and mental reset for players. The result was two of the biggest names battling it out, as Dustin Johnson beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff.
And earlier this year, following relatively weaker fields at the Sony Open and CareerBuilder Challenge, the Farmers Insurance Open felt like a big deal — the biggest sporting event on the calendar during the bye week between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The result there was another star, Jason Day, prevailing at week’s end.
This week feels very similar to those. Pay attention to the pattern, because the list of contenders Sunday afternoon should again feature some prominent names.
Which studs do I Iike to finish top 5 and top 10? Who am I targeting in matchups? And who’s my pick to win? Let’s dive in.
All odds from Sportsbook.ag as of Wednesday evening.
If you read the above lede without just skipping here to the prediction section, you should know where I’m going with this.
Sure, the winner’s list for this tourney includes the rare Derek Ernst sighting, but it more often features the likes of Rory, Rickie and Tiger. You can convince me to place a few bucks on a not-so-out-of-nowhere guy such as Tony Finau or Webb Simpson (he’s a member at Quail Hollow), but I’m expecting another big-name winner this week.
Of course, narrowing down the list of contenders to “Really Good Players” is the easy part. Trying to figure out which one is the best play? That’s hard.
Thomas (+950) feels like the safe pick, fresh off his breakthrough initial major championship here last August. Now the world’s second-ranked player, he hasn’t finished worse than 22nd place in eight starts this year. If you like him, take him. I won’t argue it.
McIlroy (+700) will be another popular selection. He won at Bay Hill three starts ago. He tends to play his best golf during the second or third week of a consecutive stretch, but again, if you like him, take him and I won’t argue it.
My pick to win, though, isn’t either of ’em. I’m going with Fowler (+1000, pictured above).
Six years ago, he earned his first career PGA Tour title at this event. He still loves this course, as evidenced by his streak of six made cuts in six starts here, plus a T-5 at last year’s PGA Championship.
With Fowler coming off a second-place finish in his last start at the Masters, it feels as if he is on the verge of winning yet again. This week makes perfect sense for it.