Will golf's stars shine at Quail Hollow?

May, 1, 2012
In its decade of existence, the currently named Wells Fargo Championship has blossomed into a premier event on the PGA Tour.

Trivia question

Six of the nine winners of the Wells Fargo (or Quail Hollow, or Wachovia) Championship have also won majors in their careers. The second-ever winner of the event, though, has not. Who was he? (Answer below)

Hence, an elite field is in Charlotte this week, featuring 18 different major winners. Among them, defending champion Lucas Glover, reigning PGA champ Keegan Bradley, and each of our superstars in tow for this week's Three on the Tee. The Numbers Game starter calls:

Rory McIlroy: Another week, another switch atop the Official World Golf Ranking. And we could very well have another switch this Sunday, depending on how well McIlroy finishes at Quail Hollow. As the sophisticated readers of Numbers Game know, he posted a smoldering 62 to win here in 2010, so there's a birdie-barrage history here for the current world No. 2.

McIlroy won that year after making the cut right on the number two days prior. He became the first player since Chris Couch at the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans to do that in a PGA Tour event. McIlroy's closing 62 was the lowest final-round score by a PGA Tour winner since Brad Faxon fired 61 at the 2005 Buick Championship. Of course, later in 2010, Stuart Appleby shattered McIlroy's mark with his 59 to win the Greenbrier Classic.

McIlroy missed the cut at the Wells Fargo last year, but it was shortly thereafter that he began the dominant stretch he's seemingly been on ever since. In fact, it's the last time he missed any cut worldwide. Since this event last year, McIlroy has made 22 worldwide starts, finishing in the top-five in a staggering 14 of those, and winning four times.

Tiger Woods: After a disappointing showing at Augusta, Woods also returns to the scene of his most recent PGA Tour missed cut (well, in a non-major at least). Woods shot a second-round 79 at this event in 2010, his highest career second-round score on the PGA Tour as a professional. That's not to say he's always had issues here -- quite the contrary.

Woods won this event back in 2007, breaking par in all four rounds. His other three career starts: T-3, fourth and T-11. When he won the event in '07, he putted phenomenally well, leading the field in distance of putts made, and finishing third in the field in strokes-gained putting. In 2004, he led the field in strokes-gained putting, and was fourth in the category in 2005.

It's difficult to imagine Woods not in the mix over the weekend. Of course, many purported experts on the sport said the same thing about the Masters, and they were all proven very, very wrong.

Phil Mickelson: In eight career starts at this event, Lefty has just one finish outside the top-12. His six career top-10s are the most in tournament history. Sixteen of his past 20 rounds at Quail Hollow have been better than par. He's finished top-four in four of his past six PGA Tour starts. The superlative factoids supporting success for Phil Mickelson at this week's Wells Fargo Championship go on and on.

But maybe the best statistic regarding Lefty entering this week? He's putting better than he has in years. Mickelson is currently third on the PGA Tour in strokes gained-putting. In each of the previous three years, he hasn't ranked any higher than 130th. Correspondingly, Mickelson is right near the top in a myriad of other putting stats, ranking in the top five in one-putt percentage, putts per round and birdie-or-better conversion percentage.

One stretch of holes you're sure to hear a ton about this weekend during the tournament broadcast is the closing three, dubbed "The Green Mile." The trio of holes has routinely played, on average, about a stroke above par. Five times in nine years, they combined to play more than a stroke above par.

Last year, the number was plus-0.78 for the three holes, the lowest such number in the nine-year history of the event. Even then, the stretch played more difficult than the final three holes at the Masters, U.S. Open or Open Championship.

The closing hole at Quail Hollow is especially tough. The 478-yard par-4 ranked as the fourth-toughest finishing hole on the PGA Tour in 2011 (second-toughest among the non-majors). It has ranked among the top-five most difficult 18th holes on the circuit each of the past five years.

Trivia answer

Question: Six of the nine winners of the Wells Fargo (or Quail Hollow, or Wachovia) Championship have also won majors in their careers. The second-ever winner of the event, though, has not. Who was he?

Answer: Joey Sindelar in 2004.

Winners at this event haven't conquered The Green Mile -- more like they've survived it. Since 2005, no winner at Quail Hollow has broken par over the final three holes for the week. The past five winners have played them in a combined 9-over, with Tiger Woods winning the event in 2007 despite playing them in 4-over.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.



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