Rory McIlroy, a Wells Fargo Championship leader, looks good after a hiatus
Ski hats, hoodies and heat gave way to T-shirts, sunglasses and air conditioning in the afternoon at Quail Hollow on Thursday, so that only usually means a few things: it’s spring, the Wells Fargo Championship has officially arrived and it’s Rory McIlroy’s birthday.
If anyone wasn’t initially aware of the day’s meaning, all it took was a few moments watching McIlroy tame one of his favorite courses. Patrons kept showering him with love and he reciprocated in his own special way — by carding a 3-under-par 68 to vault him into a tie for 16th place, three shots off Tommy Fleetwood’s pace following the first round of play.
“It was very nice,” McIlroy said. “I think this is my 11th birthday I’m celebrating in Charlotte. I’m sort of getting used to it. Yeah, look, it’s really nice. It’s not nice to have to wake up at 4:30 a.m. on your birthday, but at the end it’s just another day.
“I feel just as good now as I did at 24. So, with that I still feel like I’ve got a lot of good years left in me. It’s nice to be out there and everyone wishing you, sort of wishing you a good day.”
Matt Fitzpatrick, who was in McIlroy’s playing group pairing along with good friend Jason Day, even got into the act. Although Fitzpatrick’s gift to the 34-year-old was unplanned.
“I hit my 9-iron to two foot and then he hit his 9-iron or whatever he hit,” Fitzpatrick said, “and it hit my ball. And his went to like four foot. So, yeah, saved him a birdie there.”
McIlroy’s strong showing comes in the aftermath of a three-week respite following his disappointing showing at the Masters last month. He missed the cut in Augusta, Georgia, thanks to a 5-over 77 performance in the second round.
He also withdrew from the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, S.C., the next week, representing his second missed designation of the season, and took the time to do a mental reset and refresh himself. It appears the break was much needed even if it cost him $3 million as a penalty from the PGA Tour.
“It was nice to get off to a good start, yeah,” McIlroy said, “nice to feel like I played well. I didn’t want to spend my birthday afternoon grinding on the range, so it was nice to play OK.”
Even with all the changes to the course over the years, McIlroy still has a great feel for the layout. He’s won this tournament three times — including his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 when it was called the Quail Hollow Championship — and there’s just something about playing here that leaves him at ease.
The new alterations actually benefit his game.
“The golf course has become a little bigger, a little longer,” McIlroy said. “There’s one less par 5, which probably isn’t great for me. But then there’s a couple really hard par 4s put in there. I think it suited me both ways. And I’ve always had a level of comfort on this golf course, whether it was back in the sort of 2011-2012 era or sort of post-PGA in 2017.
“If you look at all the results, I certainly excel here in May rather than when we played it in August and it was full of Bermuda. I struggled with that a little bit. When it’s like this and overseeded, I feel like it’s — that’s sort of the right in my wheelhouse.”
Here are some key takeaways from the initial day of action:
Round 1 leaders
Tommy Fleetwood wasn’t at the top of the leaderboard early on, but he’s there now. And he may be a force to be reckoned with if he can put together three more solid rounds.
Fleetwood fired a 6-under 65, aided by a nice finish. While others had issues closing, he didn’t, making birdies on three of his final five holes — including the last two. He even fared well on the tough 494-yard par 4 at No. 18.
“Well, you have to play well around the course,” Fleetwood said. “It has its chances and the more you look at it, the more you talk about it. You obviously have the par 5s and a couple short-issue par 4s, which equally you can easily make bogeys on any of those holes.
“And I think that’s what makes it such a tough course at times, because the scoreable holes can actually still kick you.”
Kevin Streelman had his long game and short putts working, posting 5-under to seize early command of the leaderboard before finishing in a five-way tie for second place leading into Friday’s second round.
Streelman really found his rhythm on the back end of his first nine, registering birdies in three of five holes wrapped around his turn. He bogeyed the par-4 No. 12, but quickly got on track again with a pair of birdies in his final five holes.
As the temperature warmed up, so did Streelman.
“It was a tough start,” Streelman said. “It was freezing cold. Hit it in the left bunker, hit a terrible shot out of there, but was able to get up and down for par and was off to the races there. Greens were perfect. They’re just so beautiful this week.
“I was able to hit iron shots kind of on the right levels and have decent looks at birdies. To pull away with six birdies in a day here is pretty strong, so I was happy with that.”
Streelman has ties to the area and that made his opening round feat all the more heartwarming. His parents live in Rutherfordton, N.C., which is about 90 minutes west of Charlotte and southeast of Asheville near the mountains. They moved there roughly eight years ago at the age of 78.
“Coming out of COVID, they haven’t been able to see me golf, they haven’t seen my kids as much as I wanted,” Streelman said. “They were able to come out (Wednesday to the pro-am) and the team here was tremendous about letting them ride along. Got them a cart and drove them down the fairways with me.
“I don’t know how many more times they’ll get to watch me play golf. They taught me the game 36 years ago, so it’s pretty special to me and my family. And for them to be out watching me play golf means a lot.”
K.H. Lee’s familiarity with the course from his days roaming it as a member of the International Team at the President’s Cup in September apparently came in rather handy. He must’ve kept some good notes.
Lee’s 5-under has him tied with Streelman, Taylor Moore, Xander Schauffele and Ryan Palmer, giving them an early edge to land the $3.5 million winner’s purse and the 500 FedEx Cup points that come along with it. And Lee believes he could have handled the clubs even better than he did.
“Yeah, I think No. 14, 15, I think (were a) really good birdie chance, but I didn’t make it,” Lee said. “Then 16, a little miss shot in the bunker. But really good up and down. So, really (at) lucky 17 and then I’m so happy today.”
Friday’s second round: 6:45 a.m.- 6 p.m. (ESPN+), 2-6 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday’s third round: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (ESPN+), 1-3 p.m. (Golf Channel), 3-6 p.m. (CBS); Sunday’s fourth round: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (ESPN+), 1-3 p.m. (Golf Channel), 3-6 p.m. (CBS)
According to the National Weather Service: Friday: A high near 75 with increasing clouds. Winds will be light and variable, becoming east southeast around 6 mph in the morning. There’s a 40% chance of showers, mostly likely after midnight. Saturday: A 50% chance of showers with mostly cloudy skies and a high temperature near 66. Precipitation amounts could range between a quarter and half of an inch. Sunday: A 40% chance of showers, with thunderstorms possible after 2 p.m. It will be partly sunny with a high hovering around 79.
Friday’s tee times
No. 1 tee
6:50 a.m.: C.T. Pan, Patrick Rodgers, Doug Ghim
7:01: Danny Willett, Callum Terren, Matthias Schwab
7:12: Chesson Hadley, Ben Taylor, Sam Stevens
7:23: Chris Kirk, Tyler Duncan, Brendon Todd
7:34: J.J. Spaun, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson
7:45: Kurt Kitayama, Richy Werenski, Brian Harman
7:56: Chad Ramey, Paul Haley II, Lento Griffin
8:07: Cameron Champ, Andrew Landry, Matt Kuchar
8:18: Nate Lashley, Adam Schenk, Taylor Pendrith
8:29: Ryan Palmer, Peter Malnati, Ben Griffin
8:40: Jason Dufner, Emiliano Grillo, Max McGreevy
8:51: Dylan Wu, Harry Hall, M.J. Daffue
9:02: Trace Crowe, Morgan Deneen, Quinn Riley
12:10 p.m.: Ben Martin, Robby Shelton, Taylor Montgomery
12:21: Ryan Moore, Stephan Jaeger, Will Gordon
12:32: Andrew Putnam, Denny McCarthy, Beau Hossler
12:43: Max Homa, Patrick Cantlay, Sahith Theegala
12:54: Matt Fitzpatrick, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day
1:05: Tony Finau, Corey Conners, Harris English
1:16: Seamus Power, Mackenzie Hughes, Webb Simpson
1:27: Nick Hardy, Matt Wallace, Taylor Moore
1:38: Davis Riley, Sungjae Im, Lucas Glover
1:49: Troy Merritt, Doc Redman, Alex Smalley
2:00: Dylan Frittelli, Scott Piercy, Jimmy Walker
2:11: Aaron Rai, Austin Eckroat, Harris Endycott
2:22: Alejandro Tosti, Willie Mack III, Austin Greaser
No. 10 tee
6:50 a.m.: Rory Sabbatini, Kramer Hickok, David Lipsy
7:01: Nick Watney, Justin Suh, Austin Smotherman
7:12: Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren, Eric Cole
7:23: Tom Kim, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth
7:34: Keegan Bradley, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler
7:45: Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa, Cameron Young
7:56: Sam Burns, Adam Scott, Shane Lowry
8:07: Si Woo Kim, Trey Mullinax, Tyrrell Hatton
8:18: Wyndham Clark, Matthew NeSmith, Davis Thompson
8:29: Michael Kim, Sam Ryder, Greyson Sigg
8:40: David Lingmerth, Henrick Norlander, S.H. Kim
8:51: Brent Grant, Akshay Bhatia, Pierceson Coody
9:02: Danny Quinn, Ryan Cole, Marcus Byrd
12:10 p.m.: Ryan Armour, Kevin Strealman, Hayden Buckley
12:21: Keith Mitchell, Mark Hubbard, Tyson Alexander
12:32: Adam Long, Byeong Hun An, Lee Hodges
12:43: Erik van Rooyen, Joel Dahmen, J.B. Holmes
12:54: Sepp Straka, Luke List, Michael Thompson
1:05: Nico Echavarria, K.H. Lee, Martin Laird
1:16: Cam Davis, Jim Herman, Francesco Molinari
1:27: Chez Reavie, J.T. Poston, Garrick Higgo
1:38: Adam Scensson, Robert Strab, Gary Woodlan
1:49: Kelly Kraft, Zac Blair, Justin Lower
2:00: Adam Hadwin, Russell Knox, Joseph Bramlett
2:11: Kevin Tway, Patton Kizzire, James Hahn
2:22: Carson Young, Trevor Cone, Ryan Gerard