Why McIlroy isn't a lock for the PGA Championship
Rory McIlroy is without a major since his victory in the dying light of Valhalla three years ago. He has had, to be generous, a skittish year in the majors, but many believe – a group that very possibly includes the man himself – that his best chance to add a fifth major to his collection comes at the PGA next week.
That’s because it is being played at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, a course on which he has enjoyed significant success. McIlroy is the only two-time winner of the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship and would have slipped into a third Blue Jacket if he had won a play-off with Rickie Fowler in 2012.
He also has a close relationship with the club and its president Johnny Harris and even popped in for a look at the changes to the first five holes earlier this year when he was attending a wedding in Charlotte (and gave them his blessing).
So despite his unpredictable year, the Northern Irishman will understandably be a strong favourite at Quail Hollow – and you wouldn’t back against him contending – but there is a fly in the ointment. The course will not just feature a very different start in terms of design to what he has conquered before, it will also play very differently owing to the different time of year.
The Wells Fargo is held in May, whereas the PGA Championship is back, for now, in its usual August slot. And that has weather implications – it can be windy and cool in May but won’t be in August, when heat and humidity will be off the scale – as well as agronomic ones, which in layman’s terms means different grass.
We’ve tried to take the jargon out of the tale to bring you the story of why the new grass covering Quail Hollow will change the way the course plays so differently.
Why it had to happen
Quail Hollow’s greens used to be cool-weather variant bent grass because it survived the winters better than Bermuda. But then stronger strains of it were developed and, in addition to covers for the greens if the temperature dipped below 27 or 28 degrees, Bermuda grass started to dominate in south-east American courses.
Quail Hollow followed suit after a poor year with bent greens in 2013, the club swapping to miniverde Bermuda. It was a success, but club president Harris wasn’t satisfied and asked his new greenkeeper Keith Wood to examine the options after he joined the club in 2015.
“Mr Harris decided he wanted even better putting surfaces for the PGA Championship,” Wood tells NCG.
“The strain they had in before gets a little worn down when the heat picks up, and it will be scorching in August. They wanted a Bermuda grass that would be able to handle that heat.”
Champion Bermuda grass was deemed to be the answer. It arrived in Charlotte in a refrigerated truck from a Texas turf farm that used decades of genetic research to develop the hardy grass. It was laid down on some of the most nutrient-rich soil in the States, a mix of sand, high-calibre soil and, believe it or not, worm excrement.
Because the Bermuda greens require lots of sunlight, trees around them needed to go. Low-lying rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and crape myrtles have replaced them.
Pure Bermuda for first time
“We had to rethink our strategy completely because of the date change,” Wood explains.
“The set up will be interesting, because the Wells is always played on Rye grass over-seeded with Bermuda whereas this is going to be played on 100 per cent Bermuda.
“This is the first time in history that they haven’t over seeded the grass since the tournament isn’t until August we have time to let the dominant grass come through and be naturally green.”
Indeed when NCG visited in April the course had actually gone dormant yellow-brown. It looked dead.
— Chris Bertram (@CJ_Bertram) April 10, 2017
How it will affect play
“The grass types are going to be different and you’ll get different lies than what they are used to,” Wood, who has been at Quail Hollow for over two years, says.
“Plus the warmer air and extra humidity will give a different feel to the course.
“I don’t know if it is going to play shorter because we have to ways to manipulate the rough and make the fairways firmer so balls bounce through the fairways into rough and such like. But it will definitely play differently on the greens. They will be firmer and faster due to grass and heat.”
Bermuda grass rough is notoriously harder to escape from than ryegrass rough too, suggesting there will be more of a premium on accuracy than in the Wells.
Defending champion Jimmy Walker certainly feels it will be a different proposition than the regular PGA Tour stop.
“It has the potential to play completely different than it used to,” Walker has said.
“We’re used to playing it with rye grass everywhere. It has a potential (with Bermuda) to play really firm and really fast. That’s when golf gets really hard – when you start losing control of the golf ball.
“Bermuda rough tends to fly a lot, or it could come out where you get some horrendous lies. Guys are going to have to deal with that: ‘Am I going to get the big jumper?’ Or ‘Will I get the really soft shot that comes out?’
“Even around the greens, Bermuda rough is very hard to chip out of. The greens ought to be fast, and that’s the biggest variable, I would think.”
A desire for consistent firmness
“The last Wells Fargo in 2016 the green speeds were around 13,” Wood says. “We won’t go close to that as it gets unfair.
“Rather than speeds and type of grass being the biggest issue, I think the real test will be their firmness – and one of the reasons we put in new approaches when we put in the new greens was so that we can control the firmness of the approaches too.
“The last thing we want to do is have a green that is playing really fast and an approach that is playing soft. Want to manage them in same manner and that will be a big difference to Wells Fargo.
“On some of the front hole locations with those firm greens it is almost impossible to get close, so they may decide running it in is the best option.”
A PGA Championship venue where a running approach might be the ‘the play’? This has the makings of a different kind of American major…
Keep up to date with all the latest from Quail Hollow on NCG’s dedicated PGA Championship site