Don't overlook the Quail Hollow first-timers at the PGA Championship
Rory McIlroy is a lock for this week’s PGA Championship, right? He’s made seven starts at Quail Hollow, the host venue for the PGA TOUR’s Wells Fargo Championship from 2003-16. He shot a final-round 62 to win in 2010, and shot a 61 on his way to winning in 2015. He also has four other top 10s. If not him, it’s got to be one of the other players in the field with prior experience at Quail Hollow. Maybe Rickie Fowler, also a winner here. Or Phil Mickelson, who’s done everything but win on this course. Sure, there are changes to the course. The greens have new Bermuda grass. There are countless trees removed. And four holes have been changed. But a large part of the property is the same. The feel is the same. The good memories still hold. It’s a rare opportunity – outside of the Masters at Augusta National – for players to tee off with significant course experience at a major venue. Mickelson, for instance, has played 52 rounds at Quail Hollow. A year ago at Baltusrol, he entered the week having played just four rounds there as a pro. Clearly his experience must count for something, right? If that’s the case, 55 players in the field are apparently starting well behind the 8-ball. When the course was awarded the PGA Championship, McIlroy immediately circled it as a great chance to add to his major trophy case. “I guess there's courses that you know you're going to go to that you've played well at before and it's not going to be too much different just because it's a different tournament,” McIlroy said. “It's the same golf course, sort of same shots you need to hit. Yeah, it's been on my mind for a while, this is one that I've got a good chance at.” Mickelson has seen nearly twice as much as McIlroy. Zach Johnson has 11 starts at Quail Hollow. Jimmy Walker, the defending PGA champ, has eight. Same for past Masters champ Adam Scott. Johnson went on an early reconnaissance mission prior to last week’s World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational and couldn’t help but feel like he might have a small edge. “There's certain pin placements and maybe certain subtleties of any golf course but that one in particular,” Johnson said. “That could be an advantage. You cannot hit it here or, you know what, you do want to short-side yourself on this par 5 here, whatever the case.” Jordan Spieth is going for the career Grand Slam this week. He’s looking to be the youngest person to do it. While he’s not one of the 55 Quail Hollow rookies, he’s had just one start, a T32 in 2013. Does that leave him at a disadvantage? Well … “I think guys that have played the tournament extremely well, they changed holes but the holes still go along with the rest of the holes, so I would say Rory's probably the guy to beat at this point,” Spieth said. “Someone who's had such success there, he and Rickie (Fowler). Phil's played it really well. These guys that have good feelings there, yeah, the golf course is changed, but it's similar enough that they've got good vibes around there. “So we need to try to develop those before it starts.” That’s the key for any of the guys unfamiliar with the nuances of Quail Hollow. The lack of course knowledge is not insurmountable; it simply requires an accelerated learning curve. “Course knowledge makes it a lot easier on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but other than that it’s not really a big advantage,” said U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka, making his first appearance at Quail Hollow. “By the time you tee off, everyone knows the golf course, everyone knows what everything does, I don’t see an issue with it. “I’ve played plenty of golf courses before where guys have had years of experience and it’s just a matter of who gets hot.” Koepka said his 18-hole practice round on Monday would allow him to pinpoint which side of the course he would focus on over the last two practice days. Thomas Pieters, who led through 54 holes last week in his first trip to Firestone Country Club before fading on Sunday, is also making his first start at Quail Hollow. He doesn’t consider it a detriment. Instead, he sees McIlroy’s success as a sign he too can compete. “Rory, Dustin and guys like that have a similar game to me and they do well around there. I’ll just hit to similar spots and be fine,” he said. “I did well at the Masters and barely played 18 holes. To me, it is just a golf course. You get it around. I sprayed it all over the place at Firestone but you just find a way to par when you can. “When I am in fairways I have confidence my ball striking is good enough to go at any flag and the fairways are a bit wider this week. And maybe they can overthink where not to hit it. I have a clear mind.” This last point is one that Jon Rahm believes heavily in. He turned up to the Farmers Insurance Open this year having never seen Torrey Pines before … and won. The way he did it – by destroying the back nine on the South Course Sunday while others paid the tough holes more respect – showed sometimes it’s better to know less. “I don’t feel like I am behind, not at all,” Rahm said. “I am more of a person who focusses on where to hit it, I don’t like to know where not to hit it because then it will be on my mind.” At the Shell Houston Open earlier this season, Rahm finished T-10 despite playing only nine holes in the lead-up thanks to weather issues. “The back nine, my caddie just said hit it there and I did. I didn’t ask where anything is. I just trust him,” he recalled. “You see the obvious. Sometimes knowing too much can be detrimental.” Rahm said he will trust caddie Adam Hayes again plenty this week, especially since his looper lives close by. “He knows every blade of grass on that golf course so I trust what he says,” Rahm said. Jason Day, who won the PGA Championship in 2015 and was runner-up in 2016, is happy he’s played Quail twice before with a top-10 finish. But he won’t be writing off the Quail Hollow neophytes. “Nothing surprises me,” Day said. “This is a course that someone who hasn’t won before or hasn’t played it could win around. No doubt. Everyone has a chance if they play well. It should be a great tournament.” QUAIL HOLLOW FIRST-TIMERS Alex Beach, Rich Berberian Jr., Thomas Bjørn, Jamie Broce, Wesley Bryan, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Patrick Cantlay, Stuart Deane, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Ryan Fox, Dylan Frittelli, Branden Grace, Greg Gregory, Cody Gribble, Jaysen Hansen, Tyrrell Hatton, Scott Hebert, Yuta Ikeda, Thongchai Jaidee, Andrew Johnston, K.T. Kim, Søren Kjeldsen, Satoshi Kodaira, Brooks Koepka, Pablo Larrazábal, Alexander Levy, Hao Tong Li, Joost Luiten, Dave McNabb, Chris Moody, Grayson Murray, David Muttitt, Alex Noren, Thomas Pieters, Kenny Pigman, Jon Rahm, Adam Rainaud, Xander Schauffele, Mike Small, Jordan Smith, Brian Smock, Younghan Song, Richard Sterne, Brandon Stone, Andy Sullivan, Hideto Tanihara, Peter Uihlein, Ryan Vermeer, Jeunghun Wang, Bernd Wiesberger, Danny Willett, Chris Wood, JJ Wood, Fabrizio Zanotti.
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