CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No one else at Quail Hollow has won more majors, and no one is close to his PGA Tour victories. Not surprisingly, no one had more fans following his every move Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Championship.
That used to be the case for Tiger Woods.
This time it was for Arnold Palmer, the King, but only for a day.
The tournament that always goes the extra step brought in an 81-year-old for its star power in the pro-am. Palmer, who once lived on the 15th hole and helped bring the Kemper Open to Quail Hollow years ago, played with club president John Harrison and Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson who was given a sponsor’s exemption.
“It played tougher than I’ve ever seen it play,” Palmer said. “But it’s great. I think it’s set up for a real good tournament.”
Woods, who last year missed the cut with his highest 36-hole score, is not playing because of what he described as a minor knee injury sustained in the third round of the Masters. He is to decide Friday whether to play next week in The Players Championship.
Quail Hollow isn’t suffering from lack of star power.
The defending champion is Rory McIlroy, who turned 22 on Wednesday. His birthday celebration included being selected for random drug testing. McIlroy only has two wins, although last year was extraordinary. He rallied with a late eagle just to make the cut, then closed with a course-record 62 for a four-shot victory over Phil Mickelson.
McIlroy hasn’t played in America since he shot 80 in the last round of the Masters to lose a four-shot lead, a moment equally memorable for how he handled such a devastating moment in his young career. He isn’t playing next week at The Players, so that meant a trip over from Northern Ireland, then going right back home.
Even if he were not the defending champion, McIlroy said he wouldn’t miss it.
“This is one of my favorite golf courses and one of my favorite events of the year,” he said.
The setup is similar to last year, a mini-Masters, with the rough cut so low that it’s only about an inch deep and mainly defines the fairways. That can lead to some aggressive play for birdies and eagles, along with trouble when players try to escape from the trees.
And that’s why Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, loves it.
“It really is exciting because it gives you an opportunity to try a recovery shot,” Mickelson said. “There’s a lot of penalties with as many trees that they have here, but I think it’s the most exciting shot in golf.”
Just to clarify, the short rough allows him to reach the trees?
“Oh, I can always reach the trees,” Mickelson said.
The only complaint he has is with the greens, which can funnel away from the holes. It’s when they get fast, with certain hole locations, that Mickelson last year criticized them as being unfair.
It wasn’t enough to keep him away.
“I was frustrated when I wasn’t able to go at the pin for the third time in the round after hitting a green,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said anything, but I was frustrated. They know for the major (the 2017 PGA Championship) there will have to be modifications. These greens were designed to roll about 9 on the stimpmeter, and they’re rolling 13, 14. But for the PGA, they’ll be fine.”
There was one moment last year when Mickelson was on the 18th green and told his caddie not to tend the flag. He purposely aimed some 6 feet away to keep the ball on the green. Remember, this is the guy who in January at Torrey Pines had his caddie tend the pin for a full wedge shot from the 18th fairway.
“Well, I could only go at one of them,” he said with a grin.
The field isn’t loaded with players from the top 10 as it has been in years past, although that’s primarily a function of the changing world ranking that reflects a strong international presence.
But it does have PGA champion Martin Kaymer, who can return to No. 1 in the world by winning or finishing second. And it has Bubba Watson, coming off his playoff win last week in New Orleans.
Watson now has won three times since last summer, the most of any American. And he has no idea how.
“It’s not like I’m a better player – maybe better mentally,” he said. “I felt terrible losing all the time, so I’m ready to change that. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. If I knew, I’d do it all the time. I wouldn’t just win three, I’d win a lot more.”
For one day, though, the tournament centered on Palmer.
He still plays the pro-am in his tournament at Bay Hill, but it’s special to see him anywhere else. He walked through a tunnel onto the practice range as heads turned at the silver-haired legend, hands in his pockets as he chatted for some 15 minutes with players before deciding he ought to warm up before playing.
Palmer was in a cart – playing the role of an amateur – and often picked up before finishing the hole. He still soaked up the adulation, with one fan calling out as Palmer approached the 15th, “The King lives!”
As usual, Palmer stopped to sign autographs on every hole.
“That was very flattering, to think they knew I wasn’t going to play any kind of great golf,” Palmer said. “But it was fun. It was fun seeing the people. I saw so many old friends, and that was a thrill to me. It made the day. It made it a nice day for me.”