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Wells Fargo Championship Preview: 'Quail Hollow Tests You From The First Hole,' Says CBS Sports' Frank Nobilo

(CBS Baltimore) -- When the PGA Tour returned from its COVID hiatus last year, regular events drew major-level fields. It seemed everyone was just happy to be out on the course again. Players seemingly wanted to play as much as they could for as long as they could. That tailed off as golf showed itself to be adept enough at social distancing and other safety measures to avoid additional pandemic interruptions. The Wells Fargo Championship was canceled last year, so it couldn't enjoy what would have probably been a loaded field. However, this year's Wells Fargo seems to be making up for it.

The 156-player field this week looks more like one of those big non-major fields from last summer than anything since before the Masters. And with the PGA Championship in a couple weeks, this will be the last chance for many players to fine-tune their game before the year's second major.

Six of the world's top-10 players and 12 of the top 25 will tee it up at Quail Hollow Club, home of the Wells Fargo. That includes Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, and Bryson DeChambeau. Thomas, the world's second-best player, is coming off a tie for 13th at the Valspar Championship. The third-ranked Rahm teamed up with Ryan Palmer to take seventh at the Zurich Classic. Schauffele, ranked fourth, tied for 11th on a team with Patrick Cantlay at the same event. DeChambeau, the world's number five player, will see his first action since tying for 46th at the Masters.

Max Homa, defending champion from 2019, will have his hands full this week. (No player has ever repeated at the Wells Fargo since its inception in 2003.) Homa tied for sixth at the Valspar to continue a strong year that includes a win at the Genesis Open back in February. He'll be up against a strong field that also includes plenty of big names outside the top 25. Among them are Phil Mickelson and Will Zalatoris. All but one winner of the previous 10 events will also be on hand, including Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy. McIlroy holds the course record for 18 holes (61) and 72 holes (267) and is the event's only two-time winner.

McIlroy is one of the winningest golfers of the previous decade. Between 2010 and 2019, he won 18 Tour events and four majors. That run started in 2010 at Quail Hollow and includes another win on the course five years later. But McIlroy, now ranked 15th in the world, hasn't won on Tour since 2019, and has seemed off his game for awhile. Will he be able to turn things around?

As CBS Sports golf analyst Frank Nobilo points out, "Everybody talks about the fact that he's coming back to really where he put his mark with regard to his golf in America. But I think in amongst that, people have to realize that his last win came in 2015. At the end of 2016 Quail Hollow  changed their golf course considerably to get ready for that PGA Championship that was won by Justin Thomas."

Quail Hollow is a par-71 that stretches 7,521 yards. It was first laid out by George Cobb almost 60 years ago and then upgraded by Tom Fazio in the leadup to the 2017 PGA Championship. In prior years, it was actually a par-72. The long, tree-lined course is routinely among the hardest courses on Tour. And it can play differently from day to day. The course is usually firm, and the greens are fast with a drop-off.

But generally it also plays into the hands of big hitters. Four of its par-4s play in the neighborhood of 500 yards. A couple other par-4s check in under 350 yards.

"Quail Hollow tests you from the first hole," according to Nobilo.

The course starts with a 495-yard par-4 that was built out of what were once the first two holes. It ends with a three-hole stretch known as the Green Mile.

As Nobilo describes, "holes like 16, for example, which is the start of the Green Mile, you've got this waterscape around it. That gives it an infinity edge. So you have to trust yourself, you've got hit some big shots."

That's followed by Quail Hollow's signature hole, a 190-yard par-3 with a green that is basically an island. Hole location can be the difference between a flurry of birdies and a flurry of bogies. The 495-yard par-4 18th hole is among the tougher finishing holes in the game.

The course has a way of creating some doubt as to whether a player hit the right shot. So a good game plan is key, along with the flexibility to adapt to the conditions.

"It's a golf course that really extracts a lot out of a player," says Nobilo. You have to drive it well, longer and straighter the better. And that's really the recipe on just about every single course they play. But these greens can get very, very quick. And if you get a little bit of wind... They're famous for the Green Mile. So anybody that picks up a trophy has earned it."

Here are the favorites:

Justin Thomas (10-1)

Thomas won at the Players Championship a couple months ago and finished third at the WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession earlier in the year. He won the PGA Championship in 2017, which was held at Quail Hollow.

Jon Rahm (12-1)

Rahm has played consistently well for much of the season. That includes seven top-10 finishes out of his nine Tour events this year. He's a bomber, who is currently third in SG: Off-The-Tee (.774). That will serve him well on this course.

Bryson DeChambeau (16-1)

DeChambeau last won at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in early March, and followed that up with a tie for third at The Players. He finished fourth in the 2018 Wells Fargo. DeChambeau leads this field in length and tops the Tour in SG: Off-The-Tee (1.144). But can he be the best putter among the best hitters?

Watch the Wells Fargo Championship Saturday, May 8 and Sunday, May 9, 3:00 - 6:00 p.m. ET on CBS. 

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