By Sam McPherson
After the exciting finish to The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Verde Beach, Florida, the PGA Tour moves up the Eastern Seaboard to Charlotte, North Carolina this week for the Wells Fargo Championship. CBS Sports golf analyst Peter Kostis offers his thoughts on the Green Mile, player preparations for the U.S. Open next month and some of the younger players who could win this weekend. Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson are the big names in the field at the Wells Fargo Championship.
J.B. Holmes won this event last year, shooting -14 to win by a stroke. He finished 51st at TPC Sawgrass last week at one-under par and is currently third in the FedEx Cup standings and 13th in the world rankings. Other past Wells Fargo winners in the field include McIlroy, Furyk, Derek Ernst, Lucas Glover, Sean O’Hair, Vijay Singh and David Toms. Unfortunately, former champions Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods will not be playing Quail Hollow this week. Fowler won The Players Championship last week, while Woods missed the cut at Sawgrass.
McIlroy is ranked No. 1 in the world, of course, and he is coming off an eighth-place finish at The Players after winning the World Golf Championships Match Play event in San Francisco the week before. Meanwhile, Furyk — ranked No. 5 in the world and the 2006 winner of this event — finished 56th at Sawgrass, shooting even par. Mickelson, ranked No. 18, missed the cut at The Players Championship, while Scott finished 38th with a -3 overall score and is currently ranked 11th in the world.
Rory McIlroy won this event in 2010, and Rickie Fowler won it in 2012. With both players striking the ball so well right now, does the Wells Fargo Championship lose any luster this week since Fowler isn’t in the field this year, right after winning at Sawgrass?
Times have changed. Normally, that question is about Tiger not being in the field. Adam Scott is playing, Rory McIlroy is playing … Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson; I think they still have a wonderful field, so I don’t think losing luster would be the right reaction to Rickie not playing. Obviously, Rickie is a tremendously popular player, and everyone would love to have him in the field, but they can’t play every week. With the change in the schedule this year — with the Match Play changed to the week before The Players and The Players the week before Charlotte — I expected some players would take Charlotte week off, because they have to start playing their schedule for the U.S. Open.
McIlroy won the WGC Match Play event two weeks ago in San Francisco, and he finished eighth last weekend at Sawgrass. How important is it for him to play well at the Wells Fargo Championship as he prepares for the U.S. Open next month?
It depends on how you define important. Obviously now for Rory, the buildup is going to be to get ready for Chambers Bay and the U.S. Open; that’s the next major on the schedule. I don’t think it’s important for Rory in the sense that he has to validate his position as World No. 1 or anything like that by playing well. What he needs to do is make sure he has all aspects of his game on go over the next few weeks. In that sense, it’s important for him. But in the sense of trying to validate himself as World No. 1 or to answer any criticisms from the media, I don’t think he has to do any of that.
What do you foresee as being the biggest challenge to the field this week, in terms of the Quail Hollow course itself?
The weather forecast for the weekend is not particularly enticing. They’re calling for rain and thunderstorms Saturday and Sunday, so if those materialize, weather is going to be a factor. As far as the golf course itself is concerned, you’ve got the Green Mile as they like to call it: the finish of the golf course — 15, 16, 17, 18. I think those are going to be the holes that will eventually determine your champion. If you can get through there, certainly under par, that’s going to be a huge deal. But often times we see debacles, on 17 and 18 especially, to influence who ends up winning.
Mickelson is in the field, but he’s missed three cuts this year already — including last week at The Players Championship — combined with finishing second at Augusta. What can we expect from Phil this weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship?
Quite frankly, Phil — leading up to the Masters — had some inconsistent weeks; he was preparing for The Masters during those tournaments. You can make the case that one of the best ways to prepare for The Masters is to win one of those tournaments, but I think he was trying to get his golf game in shape for Augusta. By finishing second at The Masters, he proved that he had done that. The biggest thing for Phil is going to be to complete the career Grand Slam at Chambers Bay in the U.S. Open. Nothing surprises me from Phil, but the one thing I can promise you is Phil is going to be working his tail off between now and Chambers Bay to get every part of his game ready, to give himself a chance to win. Because there will never be a better opportunity for him to win a U.S. Open than this year because of the design of the golf course.
Do you have any surprise picks this week in terms of which players will surpass expectations?
We’ve had a lot of different winners this year, and we’ve seen a lot of the younger kids come up and play exceptionally well. If I had to pick some surprises, I would go with the young guys again. Because of what’s been done by Rory, Rickie and Jordan Spieth, I would have to go with Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger. They’re part of that young group, and they’ve been playing some great golf, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. We’ve seen it in the past at Quail Hollow, where a young kid comes in and makes it his first PGA Tour win.
This event goes back to 2003. What is your favorite personal memory from the past at Quail Hollow and the Wells Fargo Championship?
There’s been a lot of stuff that’s happened there, but for me it was 2010 when Rory won. He shot 66 on Saturday and a brilliant 62 on Sunday. Going 66-62 over the weekend was pretty special. Overall, that would be my favorite memory, because that kind of put Rory on the map.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball and fantasy sports for many online sites, including CBS, AXS and Examiner.