CHARLOTTE — On Tuesday at Quail Hollow the PGA of America staged its annual long-drive contest, and as of this writing journeyman Jason Kokrak leads with a 321-yard blast that, unofficially, flew 320.5 yards in the air before crashing onto the fairway with a splat. This is to say that on a course that has been strengthened and lengthened in preparation for this week, sloppy weather has further tilted the advantage to the biggest hitters.
If you step outside and listen carefully, off in the distance, just beyond the putting green, you might hear something. A song. Faint at first, but slowly rising.
It’s Rory McIlroy music.
Welcome to the 99th PGA Championship at Rory McIlroy’s Playground, aka Quail Hollow Club. Officially the event has 156 entrants, but on this muggy and soggy afternoon, no one looks better on paper than Rors.
The case for Rory begins with his astonishing Quail Hollow track record. He earned his first-career PGA Tour title at Quail’s Tour stop as a 20-year-old in 2010 (with a 62 on Sunday), and won the same event in 2015 (with a 61 on Saturday). In seven trips to the Wells Fargo Championship, Rory has six top-10 finishes. The bank should stick his face on local ATMs — no player has won more money at this venue than McIlroy has.
“This is a week I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” McIlroy said at his Tuesday press conference. “I think once you go back to a place where you do have great memories, all that starts to come flooding back to you and it makes you feel good about yourself. That’s sort of how I feel around here.”
His recent form also inspires, especially off the tee. Last week, en route to a fifth-place finish at Firestone, McIlroy busted a tournament-record 39 drives longer than 300 yards. If he had played enough Tour rounds to qualify for the season stat rankings, McIlroy would currently lead the Tour in driving distance, strokes-gained off the tee and strokes gained tee-to-green.
Add it up, and at this moment he’s the best driver in the world. Not D.J. Not Hideki. Not Bubba. And it’s not close.
McIlroy has also thrived at other PGA Championship venues, which have produced two of his four major titles. He also has four other top-10 finishes. So, yeah, the good vibes are flowing this week.
If you’re looking to poke holes, the case against McIlroy begins with the renovations to this golf course. To prep for this championship, Quail blew up its opening hole, added two others and planted Bermuda grass throughout. It’s not the same track that Rory has dominated, but it may still be similar enough.
“It used to be you got through the first five holes here at one or two under par and that was a decent start, and now you get through the first five holes at even par and that’s when the golf course starts to open up for you,” McIlroy said. “But for the most part, 15 of the 18 holes are pretty much the same.”
McIlroy is also still adjusting to the new man carrying his golf bag, his celeb buddy Harry Diamond. In a surprise move shortly after the British Open, McIlroy sacked longtime looper J.P. Fitzgerald, and McIlroy said he’s been “inundated” with candidates seeking a full-time job. Diamond passed his first test last week at Firestone, and McIlroy plans to reassess shortly. “I have enough on my plate this week with trying to get ready for this golf tournament and trying to win,” he said.
The final case against McIlroy is his health. In January he missed two months while recovering from a rib injury, then shut down for a few more weeks in May when it flared up again. At the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, McIlroy looked rusty while missing the cut. But he back-doored a fourth-place finish at Birkdale and flashed that driving exhibition last week at Firestone. Now, he’s full throttle.
“Obviously I [haven’t] won as much as I would have liked this year, and there’s been a few components to that, injury-wise, changing equipment and stuff. It has been a bit of a transitional year,” McIlroy said. “But I feel like everything’s settled. My health is pretty much where it needs to be. I just want to go out there and play well this week.”
If history is any indication, he’ll do exactly that.