Sean Martin on PGA TOUR, 03 May 2019: Rory McIlroy is playing the most consistent golf of his career. This week, he’s visiting the site where he’s had incomparable success.
It’s a dangerous combination, and he proved that Thursday. McIlroy made five back-nine birdies to shoot 66 and share the Wells Fargo Championship’s first-round lead with Joel Dahmen.
Anirban Lahiri lived out a nightmare in the opening round around the course in Charlotte. The Indian had to cop eight bogeys and a double at the par-3 17th before signing on a distressing 8-over 79 against his name.
Dahmen is a third-year TOUR player seeking his first win. McIlroy is the only two-time winner of this tournament. He set the course record in each of his wins.
How comfortable is he here? He’s atop the leaderboard without his best stuff.
“Every time I step onto this golf course, I feel like I have chance to shoot a good score,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t play my best today. I sort of managed my game well, scrambled well, but it added up to a good number at the end of the day.”
Dahmen played with Tiger Woods in the third round of last year’s Quicken Loans National, shooting a 69 to Woods’ 68. Now he shares a leaderboard with McIlroy. Dahmen admits the game’s elite are at a different level than him, but 72 holes is a small enough sample to produce outliers. Dahmen is 65th in the FedExCup and 125th in the world ranking. His highlights this season include a T9 at the Farmers Insurance Open and 12th-place finish at THE PLAYERS Championship.
“Golf is awesome because on any given week or given day, anybody can beat anybody,” Dahmen said. “I played as well as Rory today and I beat everybody else in the field. That’s great and there’s no reason I can’t do that for three more days.”
There aren’t many opponents more intimidating than McIlroy at Quail Hollow, though. He wasn’t happy with the way he struck his tee shots Thursday, but he made up for it with his iron play. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach (+4.04). Signing for a good score when he’s not playing his best has been a key to his consistent play this season, he said.
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He finished in the top 10 in seven consecutive events before finishing T21 at the Masters. That stretch included his first win at THE PLAYERS Championship. He’s third in the FedExCup as he tries to join Woods as the only two-time winners of the Cup.
McIlroy made slight swing changes after a disappointing result at Augusta National, which represented another unsuccessful attempt to complete the career Grand Slam. Some faults had crept into his address position, which caused the club to get behind his hands. He had to rely too much on timing to get the club back in front of his hands.
“I’ve done a little bit of work on my swing over the last two weeks and it still doesn’t feel quite natural, but it’s started to embed in,” McIlroy said Thursday. “It felt pretty good in the practice rounds around here, and I had a decent warm-up today and I carried that into the play on the course.”
McIlroy was even par at the turn. He birdied the second hole but bogeyed the par-5 seventh after driving into the water. According to Justin Ray of 15th Club, it was the first time in McIlroy’s career that he bogeyed a par-5 in the Wells Fargo Championship.
He started the back nine with back-to-back birdies, but missed a 4-footer for a third in a row. Then he birdied the drivable 14th, par-5 15th and the downhill 16th, the first hole of Quail Hollow’s infamous Green Mile. His last three tee shots traveled 314, 333 and 366 yards.
“The last three tee shots were a little bit better,” he said.
This was his 31st round at the Wells Fargo Championship. He’s been inside the top 5 after 10 of them. This is the fifth time McIlroy has led at the end of a round at Quail Hollow, surpassing Tiger Woods for the most all-time.
He’s succeeded even as Quail Hollow has undergone a variety of changes. The course was bentgrass when he earned his first PGA TOUR win here in 2010. It was Bermudagrass when he won here for a second time.
He hasn’t had the same success since the changes that were made for the 2017 PGA Championship, though. His T16 at last year’s Wells Fargo was his first finish outside the top 10 here since a missed cut in 2011.
“Every time they tweak something here or there, it’s still sort of the same place and it really fits my eye,” he said.
Interestingly, McIlroy didn’t hold the first-round lead in either of his Wells Fargo wins. He was seven shots back after the first round in 2010 and five shots back in 2015. Only two first-round leaders have gone on to win the Wells Fargo when it’s at Quail Hollow.
If there’s someone who can buck that trend, though, it’s McIlroy. Entering this week, McIlroy was first in scoring average (69.6), Strokes Gained per round (+2.82), birdies per round (5.23) and greens hit (72%) among players who’ve played at least 20 rounds at Quail Hollow.
He proved again Thursday that he’s the man to beat at Quail Hollow.