CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A major championship-like test awaits this week at the Wells Fargo Championship.
You draw that conclusion looking at Quail Hollow Golf Club’s refortified defenses.
You don’t draw the same conclusion, however, looking at this week’s field.
This pretty much looks like the field list for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, not a bad field at all, but not the elite turnout you would expect for the caliber of can’t-miss event this was blossoming into.
Just two of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, and four of the top 20, are in this week’s field.
In 2007, every player in the top 10 in the world was here, with 18 of the top 20 showing up.
The OWGR strength of field rating is 341 this week, which projects to be the lowest since the event made its debut in 2003.
“There are some scheduling issues,” said Kym Hougham, executive director of the Wells Fargo Championship. “We aren’t a brand new tournament anymore. Guys play where they think they can play the best, and there are some players who don’t think this course fits their eye, whether it’s too long, or you have to hit it right to left, or hit it high, whatever. We’ve matured into that kind of golf tournament, where they’ve decided I’m only going to play 20 times, and I don’t play very well there.”
The numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the entire story.
Tiger Woods was expected to return to Quail Hollow this week, but, of course, he’s out recuperating from back surgery. Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy are playing this week. If Woods were here with them, nobody would care what the OWGR strength of field numbers said.
“If Tiger plays, we aren’t having this conversation,” Hougham said.
Jason Day would likely be here this week, too, but he’s out with a thumb injury. Jason Dufner and Ian Poulter played in China last week, and they’ll be in The Players Championship next week. Jordan Spieth will tee it up at The Players Championship next week, and then he has two Texas events around his hometown, with the Memorial to follow. He isn’t going to play five events in a row.
There are some other complicated issues, as well. The RBC Heritage and Zurich Classic are played the two weeks leading into the Wells Fargo Championship. They’re all banks. RBC has endorsement deals with Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk. Els and Furyk are the only players among them teeing it up at the Wells Fargo Championship. Zurich has an ambassador program. Are endorsement loyalties a factor? Maybe, maybe not.
While problems with the greens last year also may be a factor in this year’s turnout, the changing nature of worldwide scheduling is definitely a factor.
“It’s clearly a global sport,” said Joe Ogilvie, who’s in this week’s field. “There are just a lot of opportunities now. Europe pays [the equivalent of appearance fees]. The strength of tournaments has just gotten better and better, and guys have to take a week off. Traditionally, they don’t take this week off, but when there are a lot of changes to a golf course, they may be waiting to see how the changes work. I think guys are going to rave about the changes here, and I think next year you will see a stronger field, more typical for Charlotte.”
The Quail Hollow Golf Club has invested $6.5 million in club renovations as it prepares to host the 2017 PGA Championship, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. The changes over the last year include significant course work by architect Tom Fazio, who also oversaw the original renovations in ’03.
“It’s the best I’ve seen it,” said Webb Simpson, who has been a member at Quail Hollow since 2009. “The greens have come a long ways.”
A year ago, Quail Hollow’s greens were in poor condition, damaged by an unusually cold winter. As part of the renovations, all 18 greens were rebuilt, with MiniVerde Bermuda grass planted. Some of the more severe contours were softened.
“This year, the greens are unbelievable, and they’re only going to get better and better,” Hougham said.
There were also changes to Quail Hollow’s “Green Mile,” the three famed finishing holes. There’s a new 16th green, built 80 yards left of the old one, with a new fairway configuration. There’s also a new 17th tee box at the par 3 there, allowing the hole to be played from 217 yards.
Simpson expects it all to add up to a major championship test.
“I think it's going to play really tough,” Simpson said. “My guess would be single digits wins this year, even if we have good weather, just because the rough is a little longer and thicker than I've seen it, and the greens are, like I said, really tough to hold.”