By TOM LaMARRE
Third-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland simply needed a break after missing the cut in the Players Championship and the Masters.
So after McIlroy took a three-week vacation away from the PGA Tour, he will be back in action this week for the Wells Fargo Championship starting on Thursday and hopes to bring his game will him to Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.
“I needed a break for me,” said McIlroy, who captured the CJ Cup in South Carolina early this season for his 36th victory as a professional. “Obviously, after the disappointment of Augusta, and it’s been a pretty taxing 12 months mentally, so it was nice to just try to disconnect and get away from it. But it’s nice to come back and feel refreshed.
“I think I’m in a better headspace than I was…. Yeah, you know, that run-up to Augusta is always a stressful enough, a couple of weeks trying to make sure everything’s in the right order and making sure your game’s in good shape. I think for me it was a nice reset, because I still had to realize that there are three more majors this year, there’s a ton left to play for.”
The 33-year-old McIlroy also said he needed a break to focus on his “mental and emotional well-being,” he added that it was “due to personal reasons,” and when asked about that, he said it was “a private matter.”
McIlroy might not have been able to pick a better place to return than Quail Hollow for the Wells Fargo, which he has played 11 times, recording three victories (2010, 2015 and 2021) and six other top-10 finishes.
“I love this place,” said McIlroy, who in 11 starts at Quail Hollow has finished out of the top 16 only when he missed the cut in 2011 as defending champion. “I even feel like I don’t even have to play that good and I can still get it round. I feel like there’s great flow to this golf course. It allows you to get out of your own way and I’ve got great memories here.
“I think I’ve probably birdied every hole on this golf course, so figure there’s no reason why I shouldn’t do it again. It’s a cool feeling. You never quite know when you’re going to get in the zone, but when it happens, you have to realize it and just go with it. With my length and the way I drive it, it’s a big advantage around here.
“I’m excited to be back, love it here. Seriously. I like tree-lined golf courses. I like that it gives you definition, I like that it frames holes for you. I love that.”
McIlroy claimed his PGA Tour first victory at Quail Hollow in 2010 at the age of 20 when he came from four strokes down by shooting a blazing, eight-under-par 62 I the final round, including a 42-foot birdie putt to cap things off on the 18th hole.
Even if he doesn’t have his “A” game, the memories should carry McIlroy.
Other former champions in the field include seventh-ranked Max Homa, Jason Day of Australia, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Brian Harman, J.B Holmes and James Hahn.
None have quite as much to fall back on as McIlroy.
1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Despite a recent slump, missing cuts in The Players and the Masters, the third-ranked McIlroy is the Wells Fargo favorite because he has claimed three of his 36 pro victories in the event and has six other top-10 finishes. Rory won the CJ Cup in South Carolina to start this season, tied for second in the API and was third in the WGC-Match Play.
2. Max Homa, United States – The seventh-ranked Homa has earned two of his eight pro victories in the Wells Fargo, including last year by two strokes and in 2000 by three, when he shots 63 in round two. He has kept on winning this season with victories in the Fortinet and the Farmers, and has claimed five other top-10 finishes, including second in the Genesis Invitational.
3. Patrick Cantlay, United States –Even though he hasn’t added to his nine career victories this season, Cantlay has remained at No. 4 in the world by recording six finishes in the top 10, including a tie for second in the Shriners, solo thirds in the RBC Heritage and the Genesis, and ties for fourth at Zurich and in the API. He missed the cut in his only Wells Fargo start in 2021.
4. Xander Schauffele, United States – After winning three times last season to give him eight victories as a pro, the fifth-ranked Schauffele has been eight top-10 finishes but no victories this season. He tied for third in The American Express and finished fourth three times, so that next victory could be coming soon. Xander tied for 14th in 2021 Wells Fargo, tied for 24th in 2017.
5. Viktor Hovland, Norway – The 12th-ranked Hovland has victories in each of the last three seasons on the PGA Tour, but has yet to break through this year, despite a tie for third in the Players, a tie for fifth in the Zozo and a tie for seventh in the Masters among five top-10 results. He tied for ninth in his only Wells Fargo appearance in 2021, shooting 68-67 on the weekend.
6. Tony Finau, United States – Coming off his victory in the Mexico Open at Vidanta, the sixth of his PGA Tour career, Finau has risen to No. 11 in the world rankings. He has two victories for the second straight season, also winning the Cadence Bank Houston Open, among his five finishes in the top 10. His best result in seven starts in the Wells Fargo was a tie for 16th in 2015.
7. Matt Fitzpatrick, England – The sixth-ranked Fitzpatrick captured the RBC Heritage in a playoff over Jordan Spieth recently to go with his victory in the U.S. Open last year at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in addition to tying for 10th in the Masters. He played in the RBC Heritage for the first time last season and started 68-68 on his way to a tie for second.
8. Jordan Spieth, United States – Barely missed his 16th pro victory when he lost in a playoff to Matt Fitzpatrick recently as defending champion in the RBC Heritage, and also has tied for third in the Valspar and tied for fourth in the Masters and the Arnold Palmer Invitational this season on his way to No. 10 in the world rankings. Spieth tied for 32nd in only Wells Fargo start in 2013.
9. Jason Day, Australia – Hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the last two of his 12 victories in 2018, but seems to have his game back with six top-10 finishes and 11 in the top 25 this season, including fifth in Phoenix and the WGC-Dell Match Play. Day claimed one of those 12 titles in the 2018 Wells Fargo, when he posted four scores in the 60s and prevailed by two strokes.
10. Justin Thomas, United States – The reigning PGA champion has slipped to No. 15 in the world rankings with his slump this season, but could be ready to snap out of it after he closed with a 66 to tie for 25th in the RBC Heritage, and he also tied for 10th in the Valspar recently. Thomas’ best finish in four appearances in the Wells Fargo was a tie for seventh in 2015.
OTHER PLAYER TO WATCH: Sungjae Im, South Korea; Cameron Young, United States; Sam Burns, United States; Rickie Fowler, United States; Shane Lowry, Ireland; Tom Kim, South Korea; Tyrrell Hatton, England; Sahith Theegala, United States; Corey Conners, Canada; Keith Mitchell, United States; Tommy Fleetwood, England; Matt Kuchar, United States.
1. Justin Suh, United States – The former USC star finished T-6 in Players Championship, T-5 in Honda and was in the hunt in the Farmer Insurance Open before finishing in a tie for 20th.
2. S.H. Kim, South Korea – Two-time winner on the Japan Tour finished T-4 in the Shriners, T-12 in the Sony Open in Hawaii and T-15 in the Valero Texas Open on the PGA Tour this year.
3. Akshay Bhatia, United States – Rookie from Northridge finished solo second in Puerto Rico, solo fourth in the Mexico Open at Vidanta to earn his PGA Tour playing card for next season.
4. Stephan Jaeger, Germany – Six-time winner on the Korn Ferry Tour was T-9 in Houston, T-14 in Honda and T-14 in Mexico Open at Vidanta. T-6 in Wells Fargo Championship last season.
5. Nick Hardy, United States – In addition to teaming with Davis Riley to with the Zurich Classic of New Orleans recently, Hardy also was T-5 at Sanderson Farms, T-13 at Puntacana.
For first-round tee times, visit: https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard