Planet Golf — 07 May 2021 by GW staff and news services
McIlroy ends drought; wins Wells Fargo

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rory McIlroy’s eyes welled with tears as he considered what he’d done, and what it all meant. So much had changed, and yet he was still here, still himself and still a force to be reckoned with between the ropes, especially at Quail Hollow.

After some anxious moments on the 18th hole, McIlroy salvaged a bogey for a 3-under 68 that left him at 10 under par and one ahead of Abraham Ancer (66) at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Viktor Hovland (67) and Keith Mitchell (72) tied for third.

“Yeah, this place has been good to me,” said McIlroy, whose drive wound up in the lateral hazard on the last hole, a position from which he did well to make bogey after taking a drop. “Ever since I first set eyes on this golf course, I loved it from the first time I played it, and that love has sort of been reciprocated back. I’ve played so well here over the years.”

He said he came close to not playing at all after hurting his neck while hitting a shot on the driving range Wednesday but had time to receive treatment before his late tee time Thursday.

“Progressively got a little bit better as the week went on,” he said. 

Although he struggled a bit off the tee, hitting just three of 14 fairways Sunday, he still hit 14 greens and made up-and-downs from the sand to birdie 14 and 15. That was the difference.

“Shows you how awesome he is as a player,” Mitchell said, “because he didn’t have his best today and he still won and that’s why he’s got majors and a bunch of wins. It’s impressive watching that because he had to fight there today, too. The wind was gusting like crazy.”

It marked McIlroy’s 19th PGA TOUR victory, and his third at the Wells Fargo (2010, ’15, ’21). This also marks the first time he’s won a tournament three times, which he called “pretty cool,” and yet that seemed relatively unimportant next to the fact that he was winning at all.    

It had been 553 days since McIlroy won the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. He came into the Wells Fargo at 15th in the Official World Golf Ranking, the lowest he’s been since late 2009, and 51st in the FedExCup. Some of his problems, he admitted, were self-inflicted.

He was rolling along nicely prior to the pandemic, but when the TOUR returned without fans on site last June, McIlroy had trouble summoning the requisite oomph for world-class golf. He and wife Erica had a daughter, Poppy, their first child, unquestionably the highlight of the year.

His forgettable golf got worse this season after Bryson DeChambeau bashed his way to victory at the U.S. Open and McIlroy decided to try and increase his swing speed. In so doing he lost his swing. After a final-round 76 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard (T10, eight behind DeChambeau) in March, he said he was “dejected” and “maybe looking to go in a different direction.”

Soon he was working with Pete Cowen, and it was the first time he’s listed someone other than Michael Bannon as his primary coach. He said it was for the long-term good of his career, and the swing changes might take, “a bit of time.” He missed cuts at THE PLAYERS Championship and the Masters, took a vacation to the Bahamas, came home, kept grinding.

Quail Hollow, though, is McIlroy’s happy place. In 10 starts at the Wells Fargo he now has eight top-10 finishes, including three wins. He shot a course-record 62 to win going away in 2010 and broke his own record with a 61 in his 2015 victory. He seems to win here every five years whether he needs it or not. (There was no tournament in 2020 or he surely would have won it.)

With the victory, he has now won on Father’s and Mother’s Day, and there, just off the 18th green and in a floppy sun hat, was wife Erica cradling Poppy. He bent down to give them a celebratory kiss, the scene further underlining that this was a changed McIlroy. This was his first win as a dad, and his first with new coach Cowen. He’s been working with sports psychologist Bob Rotella for the last few months. And living through the pandemic has changed us all.

First win as a dad.

First Mother’s Day for Erica McIlroy. ❤️— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 9, 2021

Now, though, he’s looking forward to some consistency – a swing and some swing thoughts that he can fall back on under pressure. He showed a glimmer of that on Sunday.

“I had a couple of things to fall back on,” McIlroy said, “which was really important, especially under pressure. Needing to hit good shots down the stretch, I had a couple of very playable swing thoughts that I’ve had all week. Pete and I did some good work last week in Florida.”

When those swings produced pars on 16 and 17, and limited the damage on 18, it was over. He blinked back tears in his interview on CBS because of relief and satisfaction, yes, but also recognition. Even with so much change, there he was, Rory McIlroy winning at Quail Hollow again.

“I felt good about my game coming in here,” he said, “but I wasn’t expecting to come and win first week straight out again. It’s satisfying to see the work is paying off, but it’s just the start. There’s so much more I want to achieve and so much more I want to do in the game.”


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Golf hasn’t had this much noise, this much energy, since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Rory McIlroy is right back in the thick of it at the Wells Fargo Championship.

He is playing in the final group for the first time since Riviera, a month before golf shut down and fans were mostly kept away the rest of 2020.

“It was buzzy, that atmosphere,” McIlroy said after a 3-under 68 left him two shots behind Keith Mitchell. “Just so cool to play in an atmosphere like that again. I’ve missed it. I didn’t think I would miss it as much as I did, but I really have. So to be in contention, to have the fans back, I really enjoyed it out there today and I’m excited about tomorrow.”

Sunday should be quite a show, at least a loud one. The tournament was allowed 30% capacity, whatever that is on a sprawling golf course. Only a small majority of them are wearing masks, making it sound even louder.

Mitchell, who also felt drained of energy after the restart nearly a year ago, straightened out his putter and delivered big tee shots Saturday. He also avoided the mistakes that slowed McIlroy and Woodland, and closed out a bogey-free 66 for a two-shot lead over both of them.

He will be going for his second PGA Tour victory, the first one coming at PGA National in the Honda Classic two years ago.

“Some golf courses on the PGA Tour you can hit bad shots, get away with it and still try to make birdie,” Mitchell said. “You can’t do that here. I think that’s a true test of golf. I don’t think golf would be fun if every course was like this. I just feel more comfortable around a tougher course.”

The putter issue is not a figure of speech.

After closing with an 82 in the Valspar Championship last week, Mitchell discovered his putter was out of alignment. He had it bent back to the right specifications and felt his game back to an upward trend.

“I just feel like everything’s really working,” said Mitchell, who was at 9-under 204. “My driver feels great, and around this place you’ve really got to drive it well. Really just trying to keep the ball in front of me right now and see what we can do tomorrow.”

McIlroy will be right there along for the ride.

A two-time winner at Quail Hollow, McIlroy raced out to the lead, steadied himself after a double bogey on the 12th hole when his drive hit a cart path and played mistake-free the rest of the way. Winless the last 18 months, McIlroy will be in the final group for the first time since Riviera more than a year ago.

He was in the penultimate group at Bay Hill last year, the final event before the pandemic.

“I’m excited to be in the position I’m in. I wasn’t really expecting to be in this position coming into this week. I felt like I was still working on my game,” he said. “So I just have to go out and try to play well again tomorrow and see where that leaves me.”

Woodland had troubles on his own, particularly a drive right of the water hazard on the par-5 seventh that turned birdie into bogey, and a lapse of poor putting down the stretch on the back nine. He still managed a 70 with a chance to win for the first time since his U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach in 2019.

With more swirling wind and some pin positions on ridges, Saturday was a day for a little separation. It began with 23 players separated by four shots. Now there are six.

Luke List (68) was three shots behind, while Scott Stallings (70) and Satoshi Kodaira (68) were at 5-under 208.

McIlroy wishes he could have one shot back — the drive on No. 12 that hit hard off the path and well onto a hill. Trying to pitch under trees, he couldn’t get back to the fairway, and was blocked by another tree that forced him to punch one up to the front right of the green. The pin was back left, and he three-putted from 85 feet for double bogey.

McIlroy saved par with an 8-foot putt on the next hole, as meaningful a putt as he made all day.

Woodland recovered from his bogey on the par-5 seventh with a great drive to set up a simple up-and-down for birdie at No. 8, and he was right back in the lead with a birdie on the 10th. But he dropped shots on the 13th and 14th, three-putting the latter. He took three shots to get down from 45 feet off the 15th green and had to settle for par.

A birdie on the 17th got him within range.

Missing from the action is Phil Mickelson, whose 64 in the opening round now feels like more than two days ago. He took double bogey from the trees on No. 9 and came up short in the water on the 136-yard 17th hole for another double bogey and a 76. He is 9 over the last two rounds and tied for 55th.

Still playing is Bryson DeChambeau, but not after an 1,800-mile round trip home to Dallas and back when he thought he missed the cut. He made it back to Quail Hollow with an hour to spare and shot 68, leaving him eight shots behind.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Mickelson was 11 shots worse than his previous round at Quail Hollow. Bryson DeChambeau made an 8 on his 16th hole and headed straight for the exit.

Turns out nothing was as bad as it seemed Friday in the Wells Fargo Championship.

Morning gusts gave way to a relentless wind in the afternoon and had just about everyone trying to finish without too much damage. Former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland had a 2-under 69 in the morning and shared the 36-hole lead with Matt Wallace (67) and Patrick Rodgers (68).

No one in the afternoon could catch them at 6-under 136.

Rory McIlroy will be playing on the weekend for the first time in two months. He shot a 66, and by the end of the day, that was good for a tie for fifth, two shots out of the lead.

As for Mickelson?

Never mind that he followed a 64 with a 75, losing a little focus at the end when different swing thoughts entered his head on holes with water, the wrong kind of ripple effect.

“I’m excited to be in contention heading into the weekend, and I know I’m playing well,” Mickelson said.

DeChambeau had reason to leave. Two balls in the water on the par-5 seventh led to his triple bogey and sent him to a 74. He was just inside the top 100 when he left without speaking. And then the wind arrived, the scores shot up and he made the cut on the number at 2-over 144.

“The hardest conditions I’ve played in a while,” Justin Thomas said after a 73 that included a three-putt double bogey on the par-3 13th. His downhill putt from 18 feet caught a gust so strong it stopped 4 feet short.

“Even the downwind holes were hard,” said Carlos Ortiz of Mexico, who has lived in Texas the last 12 years where he described typical conditions as “windy or windier.” Being used to it doesn’t make it easy, though Ortiz managed a 68, the best score in the afternoon.

That left him in the group at 4-under 138.

Mickelson was in the group another shot behind, determined to put an end to a drought so severe that he hasn’t finished among the top 20 in nine months.

Everything felt and looked so easy when he opened with a 64. This was more of a challenge, particularly late in the round, and Mickelson felt his focus lapsing again.

He hit into the water on the 14th while deciding whether to hit a draw or a cut (he still managed par; his wedge game is still among the best).

After a good tee shot on the par-5 16th, Mickelson wasn’t quite sure what to do with his next one. He pulled it well right of the green, and his high flop shot landed too far and went over the edge. He chipped poorly to about 12 feet and turned what looked to be a sure birdie into a bad bogey.

Two holes later, he found the water on the par-5 17th for a double bogey.

“The back nine, I just wasn’t sharp,” Mickelson said. “I think an example of what I’ve been talking about is on 17, we’re standing over the ball and I’m changing my mind and I’m changing the shot, moving the clubhead a little bit. Instead of backing away and kind of refocusing, I just hit it and I’m not really aware of what I’m doing. So I’ve got to fix that.”

In his mind, he threw away two shots on both the 15th and 17th holes, the difference of a score at par.

“I just can’t keep doing that,” Mickelson said. “I’m optimistic for the weekend, though.

McIlroy started the second round outside the projected cut line. He has not made it to the weekend since Bay Hill two months ago, which is factual and lacking context. That amounts to only three tournaments — missed cuts at THE PLAYERS Championship and Masters, not advancing from his group at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

He turned it around quickly, starting with one of his few bad drives. This one on the 14th sailed well to the right of the bunkers, gallery, everything but the mansions just outside the property. He tried to land his wedge anywhere near the green, and just his good fortune, it trundled onto the putting surface and stopped a foot away. That sent him to five birdies over his next eight holes, and right in the mix.

“That was probably the catalyst to going on a nice little run,” McIlroy said.

Woodland was all smiles. He missed the cut badly last week at Innisbrook, called Butch Harmon and decided to go back to his previous coaches, Harmon and Pete Cowen. It didn’t take long for him to feel better. His hip isn’t bothering him and his swing feels great.

Woodland still hasn’t figured out the final stretch, Nos. 16-18, playing them in 3 over through two rounds. But he likes where he’s headed.

“I’ve seen some shots this week that I just haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “The golf swing feels so much better. Confidence has gone way up, which I did not have really in the last year. … It’s exciting right now.”

Not so excited was Jon Rahm. He made a late charge until finishing with two bogeys for a 70 to miss the cut for the first time in 11 months.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Phil Mickelson has gone nine months since he finished among the top 20, and it looks as though that streak is about to end at the Wells Fargo Championship.

The 50-year-old Mickelson kept his focus Thursday at Quail Hollow and blistered the course for a 7-under 64 to build a two-shot lead after the opening round. All but one of his eight birdies was longer than about 5 feet.

Mickelson ran off five birdies in a six-hole stretch around the turn. He closed with two birdies and a superb par save on the par-4 ninth for his best score since a 63 in the second round of the Travelers Championship last June.

Lefty missed the cut last week in the Valspar Championship and said he was concerned about losing concentration and dropping shots during stretches of a round. That wasn’t an issue at Quail Hollow, a course he loves for its mixture of birdie holes and tough par holes.

“The biggest thing for me was I was able to say in the present and focus on each shot,” Mickelson said. “My mind has been prone to wander.”

K.H. Lee had a 66 in the morning, while Innisbrook runner-up Keegan Bradley had a 66 in the afternoon.

The group at 67 included former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, Tommy Fleetwood and Keith Mitchell, who reached 6 under until a sloppy double bogey on the long par-3 sixth hole and closed with a bogey. Still, Mitchell was 15 shots better than his previous round, an 82 on Sunday at Innisbrook.

Mickelson attributed most of the fun to his grouping of everyman Joel Dahmen (68) and old-soul Lanto Griffin, who struggled to a 75 as he tries to secure a spot in the U.S. Open.

Dahmen had tweeted that a round with Mickelson was on his bucket list and that he looked forward to see how his game would stack up against the best on the PGA TOUR Champions. Mickelson has won twice on the senior circuit since turning 50 last summer.

“He’s a great guy,” Dahmen said. “He’s so full of … information, would be a good way to put it. I poked him a little bit, and he played awesome. I was trying not to get my butt kicked too bad.”

Mostly, though, this was Phil looking like the old Phil.

His lone bogey came on No. 11, his second hole of the afternoon round. His longest birdie putt was 15 feet on the 341-yard 14th, reachable off the tee but tough to get it close to the back right pin. Mickelson got up-and-down from a bunker on the par-5 15th hole. From there, he barely missed with his irons.

It started with an approach into 5 feet on No. 16. After a par save from right of the green on the par-3 17th, Mickelson hit into 3 feet on the 18th, 5 feet on the 507-yard first hole.

He finished out his round with a long two-putt birdie on the par-5 seventh, and a beautiful pitch to 5 feet with the pin on an upper shelf.

Quail Hollow wasn’t easy for some of the other stars.

Rory McIlroy, a two-time winners at the Wells Fargo, opened with a 72 as he tries to make it to the weekend for the first time since Bay Hill two months ago.

U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau birdied two of his last three holes for a 70. DeChambeau was going along fine until a big drive found a bunker, and he sent his next shot out-of-bounds to the right, leading to double bogey.

Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele each shot 72. Jon Rahm had eight bogeys in his first tournament since the Masters and shot 76.

Justin Thomas held his own with a 69 in the morning.

Mickelson said he has been doing some mental exercises, though maybe he should have just asked the TOUR earlier to put him with Dahmen and Griffin.

Dahmen said some of the discussions inside the ropes were different from other players.

“We got in some dopamine talk, frontal lobe and dopamine, and then the units of it, which I was actually impressed with,” Dahmen said. “Then he hit a 6-iron to 3 feet, so he must have had his dopamine correct on that one.”

Mickelson is No. 115 in the world and still not eligible for the U.S. Open. His last victory was more than two years ago at Pebble Beach. His last good opportunity to win was at the World Golf Championship in Tennessee last summer.

“There’s nothing physically holding me back from playing at a high level, but you cannot make mistakes at this level,” he said. “The guys out here are just so good, and I’ve been making a lot of errors, just simply not being mentally sharp.”

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