The Highlights

  • If you’re poring over the stats from last year’s PGA Championship in hopes of using them to your advantage this week, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Tiger Woods doesn’t exactly sound like a guy focused on going after the Wells Fargo title.
  • As he looks to get over another Masters disappointment, Rory McIlroy returns to a course that “plays to my strength.”

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In trying to dissect this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, plenty of eyes are going to turn to numbers from last year’s PGA Championship, which replaced this tournament as the lone professional event held at the Quail Hollow Club in 2017.

Sounds reasonable, right? Not so fast, says Justin Thomas.

He should know. He won his first major here last year.

Speaking with the media Wednesday afternoon, Thomas explained that the greens are “very firm and a decent bit slower” than they were nine months ago. He punctuated that statement by calling them “completely different” from PGA week.

I followed up by asking Thomas if he feels any kind of advantage on this track considering those differences. His answer was pretty enlightening.

“I think no matter how much success you have at a golf course or a place, you don’t necessarily have an advantage,” he replied. “Just because Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have played Augusta National so well, I wouldn’t look at them as having an advantage over me. They maybe are smarter about playing the place than I am, but [this is] Quail Hollow; it’s all in front of you. There’s no hidden tricks to it. I just scored better than everybody at the PGA. There’s a handful of courses you play that course knowledge definitely does help a lot, but I wouldn’t say that this is one of them. This is a place that you kind of see what’s all in front of you and you’re just trying to go out there and pick your spots and minimize the mistakes.”

Moral of the story: If you’re poring over the stats from last year’s PGA in hopes of using them to your advantage this week, you’re doing it wrong.

 

Tiger Plays Iron Man

If there’s a concern about Woods entering this week, it’s not about his health or his swing or even his three-week layoff (during which he didn’t touch a club for 10 days after the Masters).

No, the biggest concern should be his new TaylorMade irons, which are making an appearance in his tournament bag for the first time this week. I walked a handful of holes during his Wednesday pro-am round, and while it didn’t seem like he was struggling, there were reports of him struggling with distance control earlier in the morning.

For whatever reason, Tiger has always needed longer to feel comfortable with change than many other players. He’s needed an entire year to incorporate swing changes in the past, while a guy such as Dustin Johnson once hilariously explained his switch from a draw to a fade thusly: “Well, I was just struggling with the draw to get it in the fairway, so I said, ‘I’m going to hit a fade,’ and I started hitting a fade.”

Even so, Woods downplayed any notion that his new clubs could hold him back this week.

“They basically look the same,” he explained. “The back is a little bit different. I really don’t care what you put on the back of the club as long as it looks good in the playing position and it flies through the windows that I want and the distances that I want. Other than that, you can put whatever you want on the back.  We kept the same bounce, the same configurations.”

One other comment stood out to me during Woods’ lengthy session with the media Wednesday. He often claimed throughout the year’s first three months that he was gearing up for the Masters; he was asked what he’s now preparing himself for.

“Building towards next week,” he offered in regard to The Players Championship. “Hopefully, I can have everything peak for this week and next week, but mainly next week, and after that, getting ready for Shinnecock.

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a guy focused on going after the Wells Fargo title.

Rory Recharged

You know what they say: The best way to get over one golf tournament is to get to another. (Or something like that.)

Rory McIlroy revealed Wednesday that he spent the days after his disappointing Masters finish at home, reading a few books, binge-watching “Billions” and drinking some wine.

“It got to the point where [wife] Erica had to drag me out of the house and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go do something,’” he admitted.

The good news for Rory is that he isn’t just back at any ol’ tournament. Quail is the site of two victories, including his first on the PGA Tour in 2010, and he own six top-10 finishes in seven starts here.

In talking about this course, he listed the usual clichés: “[It] sets up well for me,” and “It suits my eye.”

 

I didn’t want to settle for such vague analysis, so I asked him what exactly about this track really fits his game.

“There’s a lot of mid and long irons, that plays to my strength,” he explained. “There’s one less par-5 now than there used to be, but the par-5s are very gettable.”

Now that’s a strong breakdown — and a good explanation as to why he should be firmly in the mix once again this week.

Niemann Going ‘Low’

I’ve seen Joaquin Niemann enough to know that the former world No. 1-ranked amateur is going to be just fine on the professional level. I’m not sure it’s a perfect comparison for his game, but he’s already taken on Sergio Garcia as a mentor, has employed the same management team as representation and, if you close your eyes and listen to his voice, even sounds like last year’s Masters champion, his Spanish-tinged accent serving as a pretty fair mimic.

Niemann is in the field this week, fresh off a solo sixth-place finish in his pro debut at the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago. This is a tougher course and more difficult field to contend with, but it’s hard to see him falling out of form so quickly.

I wanted to know what kind of course suits him best — long or short, wide fairways or narrow, firm greens or soft — so I asked him this week.

“I like tree-lined courses, like San Antonio was really, really tight,” he said. “I like to hit like my low drivers and I feel really confident with that. Yeah, this course is really long. I’ve got to hit it long, big drivers, and yeah, I feel really good.”

Low drivers run forever on firm courses. Quail is firming up, which could be a nice match for Niemann this week.

Credit:

Orlando Ramirez – USA TODAY Sports